Friday, October 12, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Q and A

This month’s question often plagues first-time writers and sometimes experienced ones. A great story idea comes to mind. You write it down so you won’t forget it, and then the notes begin. Characters form in your mind, an outline takes shape as a storyline, and the plot thickens. You create character sketches and review them (even if only in your mind) until you know each one as though you had been acquainted for years. With a working title in place, you sit down at the keyboard (or typewriter or with a writing tablet and pencil), ready to produce a bestseller.

Where do you begin your story?

Now that “once upon a time” has fallen from favor, this is often the first of several challenges that face a writer embarking on a new tale. The experiences of those whose books I’ve edited, as well as my own, indicate the first chapter or two are the most difficult to write. They can also be among the most challenging to edit. Why is this?

Even though we think we know our characters intimately—and well we may—we don’t necessarily know how they will interact with one another, and herein lies the problem. Add that unfamiliarity to the fact that the first chapter, especially the first page, must hook the reader and pull him/her into the story. Suddenly, what seemed initially to be a simple dilemma becomes crucial to the sale and success of the book.

I’m an edit-as-I-go writer (NOT recommended), so I stress way too much over beginnings. The advice I would give you is to pick a starting point, begin writing, and get the first draft on paper. After that, you can go back to the beginning, ponder its relevance, and consider its effectiveness.

Does it make sense in light of the story as a whole? Does it avoid the “huh?” factor? (Translation: is the reader going to envision the scene and jump into it, or does she feel like she walked into the middle of a foreign-language movie?) Is the starting point a great lead-in to the action?

Case in point: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never gotten past the seemingly endless beginning description to savor the story (I do love the movie, however). Granted, rave reviews shouted its praises, it’s now considered a classic by many, and it was written in another time about a time even further removed from the present. So was Louisa Alcott’s Little Women written in another time. Let’s do a quick comparison.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. The paragraph continues with more of the same, and this does not grab my attention.

“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It's so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We've got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

 This beginning, at least, pulls me into Alcott’s story.

By today’s standards of bare-bones writing that eliminates excessive description and bloated dialogue tags, neither book would have likely have found a traditional publisher. And if by some obscure chance it did, the editors would make quick work of the excessive wordiness. In all fairness, the appeal of either story is a matter of personal taste, and the point we’re considering is beginnings, not specific books we like or dislike.

How do you begin your stories? Do you find yourself rewriting your opening chapter after your first draft is completed? Inquiring minds (of editors and writers) want to know.


Writer/editor Linda Lane works with a team of editors/mentors whose goal it is to help writers write more effectively. Her new website, Linda’s Book Nook, should be operational by the end of the year. Not only will it offer books for sale, it will also feature serialized stories, short flash fiction contests (350 words or less), and a blog to address writers’ questions and issues.

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  1. Always a challenge ... I'm trying out one for my next: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...' Waddaya think?

  2. Christopher, I'm a huge fan of dichotomies. Go with that. It'll be, um, revolutionary.

    Now that I'm writing mysteries instead of business books, I like to jump into dialog. Throw the reader into the deep end of a conversation, then give them a lifeline to find their way to the surface for a breath.

    My business books usually start with a bullet list of counterintuitive claims about how business works, which I then substantiate throughout the book.

    Maybe it's the same thing.

  3. Let me see, Christopher . . . hmmm. I seem to feel just a touch of familiarity . . . not quite sure why . . .

    You always make my day, you know.


  4. Joel, I'm a fan of pulling readers in with the opening line, be it dialogue in fiction or bullets in a business book. Get them involved. Make them want to know more. Thanks for your input. :-)

  5. I'm an edit-as-I-write author and unapologetic. First-draft-before-editing has become another one of those premixed prescriptions of modern writing, yet I know countless successful writers who defy the formula. I say it IS recommended. Try it, and if it works for you, be unashamed about it. If not, try something else.

    As to openings, I do obsess about them, which may or not correlate with editing as I write. As a writer of thrillers, I like to throw the reader into the rapids with the first paragraph, immediately provoking questions of "What the...?" and "Why in...?"

    The novel I am now writing, for example, begins "The cold white dot on the palm of Wáng Lěi’s hand was growing into a small circle."

    At least that is what the ms. reads now; I am notorious for changing my mind and redoing the opener multiple times.

  6. I write mysteries so that opening scene is the discovery of a body. As for the actual writing of said scene - I lose count of the number of re-writes!

  7. I often find that what I have written as the beginning of a story gets cut in what I call the fish-cleaning method of editing. Cut off the head and the tail.

    Appreciate your humor, Christopher, and now we have Joel egging you on. This could be fun. (smile)

  8. Ah, a post about beginnings and I'm jumping in at the ending of the day! (Was at a great workshop all day.) I always like to say that you start writing anywhere you can, because you must. Only after you draft the story, however, and solidify its structures, can you know where its true opening lies.

  9. I'm always changing my beginning. And, like you, I edit as I write, although that is considered a no-no.

  10. Elspeth, great starting point. Now for those rewrites. I can't remember how many times I rewrote the opening chapter of my first venture into the thriller world, and it's probably just as well.

    I love the "fish cleaning method of editing," Maryann. Never heard that term before. But it no doubt works well in many cases because the tastiest portions -- as well as the succulence that keeps the reader reading -- lie in between the "head" and the "tail." Nice!

  11. I agree, Kathryn. The perfect opening may not show itself until the story is "on paper," so to speak. It's amazing how often it isn't where we thought it was, isn't it?

    Janet, it's comforting to know that someone besides me indulges in that no-no. :-)

  12. Your comment about "edit as you go (Not recommended) really caught my eye. That's the second time I've read something similar just recently. You hear it all the time, "Write the shitty first draft", but I personally do a fair amount of editing as I go and it works for me. I think it's time we acknowledge that there is more than one way to get a book written and maybe it's not the be all end all for writing OR getting published. I think we need to allow for the fact that everyone's process is different and stop feeling guilty if we don't follow the "common" advice that's out there. Sorry for the rant. I enjoyed your post.

  13. I always set out to write, and after some number of pages, I reach a point where I feel like I've said all that I can. That would be about the length of chapter one.

    Like you, I want to go one, but (unlike you), I lack discipline and find myself mired down in the editing and re-writing and the doubts & frustration with myself... there the story ends, lying on the compost heap of 'good intentions', moldering in mediocrity...

    As someone said above, the "dichotomy effect" rules here. I have a beginning, and I have an ending, but never the twain shall meet! :o)

  14. Nancy . . . Amen! We are all definitely different. To tweak a cliché, what's good for the goose is NOT always good for the gander. The proof of the method lies in the quality of the finished product, and a great book attained that status as a result of the author's approach to writing it. Great rant! Feel free to comment any time.

  15. rymrytr, I would guess that some great story beginnings are residing in that "compost heap of good intentions." Would you like to resurrect them? Sometimes just chatting with a writer or editor can open new avenues to travel in your quest to write a book.

    Your comment indicates that you have a good handle on sentence structure, word choice, and ability to convey your thoughts. The problem appears to lie, at least in part, in your self-doubt.
    If you would like to, you're welcome to contact me off site, and we can talk about writing and ways to move past those obstacles that get in our way. You may have a great book in you that readers will miss enjoying if you don't complete it. :-)


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