As a writer, an editor, and a teacher of writing, I know that writers an unruly lot. You know the saying about herding cats. Can’t be done. Cats aren’t pack animals. Each cat wants to do what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and how it wants to do it.
Writers are something like that. But not entirely. We all want to accomplish the same thing: tell a good story in the best possible way. We work alone, so the when is based on choice and the demands of our non-writing lives.
But when it comes to the how–well, wow! We’re all over the map, especially when it comes to starting a book. Some examples:
*“I know very dimly when I start what’s going to happen. I just have a very general idea, and then the thing develops as I write.” Aldous Huxley
*“I don’t see how anybody starts a novel without knowing how it’s going to end. I usually make detailed outlines: how many chapters it will be and so forth.” John Barth
*“With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what caused it to follow.” William Faulkner
*“I don’t write drafts, I do page one many, many times and move on to page two. I pile up sheet after sheet, each in its final stage and at length, I have a novel that doesn’t–in my view–need any revision.” Anthony Burgess
(Don’t you just want to smack him? LK)
*“I rise at first light and I start by re-reading and editing everything I have written up to the point I left off. That way I go through a book I’m writing several hundred times.” Ernest Hemingway
(No wonder he drank so much. LK)
*“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
Some authors “fly into the mist.” Some make detailed outlines. Some write Big Scenes first and fill in the rest. Some do down-and-dirty drafts, rewriting again and again to layer in details. Some change the process, at least a little, with each book. Others are more set in their ways.
How you work doesn’t matter, so long as your process works well for you. But because we are all different, it’s impossible to tell anyone *how* to achieve the goal of a Great Beginning. You’ll find it your own self, in your own way.
When I teach a class about book openings, the focus is directed to breaking down and defining what you must accomplish within the opening lines, the first few paragraphs, the first few pages, the first chapter, and the two or three chapters that follow.
There is no formula. In fact, there are many terrific ways to open a book. Each story is different, and your Great Beginning must be the one that perfectly suits that particular story. Your next book will be different, and you’ll have to start again from scratch with a whole new way of launching the protagonists and the action. Above all, you must be able to recognize when you’ve nailed it, or when the opening fails to do all the things it must do.
You already know that if your first pages fail to capture and hold their attention, agents and editors won’t be interested in representing or buying your book. And these days, with Amazon and other online sellers offering buyers a chance to sample the book, the importance of opening scenes can’t be overstated. A potential buyer, perhaps attracted by the cover or title or recommendation by a friend or a reviewer, will usually base her decision on that first chapter.
If you wind up e-publishing a book yourself, you’ll want to provide the first few pages to potential buyers. Think of your opening as a baited hook. But first you have to catch the bait. Find the right opening, shape it and color it until it’s both irresistible and mysterious. Your opening is a lure. It’s designed to make the reader want more.
Above all, the opening is a contract with the reader. “This is the kind of story I’m writing. This is a key to the nature of the protagonist. This is what you can expect in my book.” Suspense? Tension? Adventure? Humor? Brutality? Dark story? Gentle story? Inspirational? Snappy dialog? Urban contemporary? Small-town intrigue? Isolated characters? Strong community elements?
Openings can be clever, but they cannot cheat the reader. You want to raise questions and expectations that lie at the heart of your story and pay them off later, at the moment when the payoff will have the most impact. In other words, when you open your story, you will be strictly honest and simultaneously sneaky.
I still struggle with the beginning of each book. Sometimes it’s the very last thing I write. Knowing the goal, understanding what you must accomplish, doesn’t make the magic happen. It just keeps you working until you recognize the magic when it finally shows up on the page.
Great Beginnings, presented by Lynn Kerstan, runs from August 1, 2011 through August 28, 2011
Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folksinger, professional
bridge player, and nun, is the author of nine Regency romances, seven
historical romances, and several novellas. She is presently developing a
A five-time RITA Finalist (one win), she is regularly featured on
awards lists. Since Romantic Times launched its "Top Picks" feature,
every Kerstan novel has been a Top Pick. Two have been selected by
Library Journal for its "Best Books of the Year" list (2002 and 2003), and
Dangerous Passions was named to Booklist´s Top Ten Romances of 2005