Where to begin

From astrolog.com

From astrolog.com

Where do you start a book?

It’s something that still causes me a bit of confusion. And with confusion comes consternation and with consternation comes stress and panic and whammo, fun goes out the window like a cat fleeing the vacuum cleaner.

So, finding this answer, well, it’s part of my ‘return to the fun of writing’ quest.

It all started after I finished a book that made me think, gosh, they really didn’t start this in the right place. I remember back to a workshop that I took where the presenter looked at my first 20 pages and put the first 15 aside and said, start here, page 16.

Both stories had the same problem.

Both started with a lot of explanation or backstory. It’s like the author saying, ok, hold on a second, before I begin, there’s some stuff you gotta know or else the story isn’t going to make sense. Now, I know it may be a bit boring and may even lack context, but trust me, once the story begins, it’s awesome.

In fact, I think I sent a query like that. Dear Agent, this story is amazing, but you’ll have to read past the first 30 pages, ok, and then, like, it’s super good and you’ll love it.

fire in fictionHey, I get why those opening pages are hard. Look at what my man, Chuck Wendig says. Or read Don Maass. Or do a quick google search.

You have to have conflict and stakes and a strong setting and dialogue and a great opening line and no exposition and surprise and mood and tension and introduce the theme and main character and have a unique voice and…

Come on, is it any wonder we get all stuffed up on the first pages?

I think it’s easier to quantify, though equally hard to do.

Don’t bore the reader.

Ha. That’s like saying just write a great opening chapter, right? What an asshole suggestion.

But here’s the thing. Here’s what makes a good book for me:

Does your character have a problem that needs solving? It doesn’t even have to be the main plot problem. It can be a simple want, like Vonnegut said, your character ‘wants a glass of water.’ Is there something that buggers up his world?

Sure, it can have a bit of backstory. It can lack a wicked opening line. It doesn’t have to have zippy-zappy dialogue. It doesn’t have to have poetically beautiful descriptions or a gun battle with a shark.

But it does have to interest me. Engage me.

There’s a host of ways to engage the reader. All are good. But there’s no magic bullet.

All I can say is that you don’t have to do it all.

Simple as that.

However, you have do something right. Maybe two things. Three would be even better.

That’s the key, I think. I don’t have to do a hundred things in my opening, but I do have a do a few things well. So I’m going to pick my strengths and run with them.

And now here’s my last piece of advice, advice from someone who’s just written the opening three times.

It’s ok to write out a few ideas and see if one is better than the other. Sort of ‘what if?’ yourself. What if I start on the docks rather than the ship, what if I start in rain instead of sun, what if there’s a time factor? Explore the possibilities.

Hey, not all of us are Hemingway or Atwood or King. And who really knows how much they toss away, anyway. Am I right?

Believe it’s ok to toss stuff away. To have some fun with the opening.

And if you don’t get it right, that’s ok, too. You can go back and do your own, ‘wait, cut these 15 pages and start here,’ thing. Everyone’s got their own process. Just get started, get yourself interested in the story, and keep on writing. Have some fun with it.

Cuz if it ain’t fun on some level, it’s about a zillion times harder to do.

I’ll have more on this next week.

But in the meantime, what do you do for your openings? Bev? Sheila? Lisa? I’m looking at you.


Best show last week – Nothing to report, but this week the Walking Dead starts. OMG excited!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Finished Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. I dunno. Sometimes I just don’t get why a book gets published.

Pages written on new book   Not sure but writing every day. I’ll do up a count for next week. Add up the chapters. Change the font to 16. Add a lot of page breaks. I’m hoping the number will look good.

Social media update – Last week’s post on research generated a lot of discussion on Linkedin. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Health  Still sick. But almost better.

Best thing last week  Stepdad blog. 

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Ok, this will be the last time, but Unforgiven is out in Canada. Written by the politically incorrect, Sean Slater, I honestly believe it’s his best book.

So if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.


3 thoughts on “Where to begin

  1. For me, it’s even harder – I have to have the opening line before I can really settle into the opening. Both Feral and Tuya gave me opening lines that set the entire feel and scope of the book, so the opening scene was easier to do. Having some conflict that at least indirectly relates to the overall plot helps – again, to blow my own horn (sorry!), in Tuya, Kote picks a fight with the rugby team, which he dislikes, in what he says is just a “legitimate” way to bug them – they’re picking on something, it’s eight on one, and he’s running to the “rescue”. But what they’re picking on, and the person he runs into when he breaks them up relates directly to the main plot, and I hope it reveals a lot about Kote’s character by his lying to both the reader and himself about his motivation. It’s conflict, it’s interesting (I hope – haven’t heard any complaints about it yet), and it draws you, I hope into both the world of the book and into the plot by raising questions about why both Kote and Gills react the way they do when they see each other for the first time in many years and just who that rug-covered, gentle monster being picked on is. You have to be true, first and most important of all, to the characters in the book and to your own heart. If it doesn’t feel right, if it feels itchy or like a twisted sleeve on a sweater you’re wearing, it’s not right – go back and try again. And remember what Elizabeth George said – if you get that internal leap in the tummy – you’ve got it.

  2. Oh, and opening line doesn’t necessarily come in the first draft, but I’ve learned to live with the itchy, twisted sleeve feeling until it does, because I know it will, eventually.

  3. So for me, its really as simple as it should be: a character, in a setting, with a problem. That’s an opening. But that’s also the bones of every single scene in the novel. There is really nothing special about the opening. You don’t have to do MORE in the opening than you have to do in the rest of the novel. Its simple.

    Who is this person? Where are they? What do they want that they can’t immediately get?

    In the novel I am working on, I have a widow with a sharp intellect in an elaborate rooftop garden watching two men play, inadequately, an intricate board game. She wants to go meet her Paha’ari lover, but can’t because the two men are “officially” courting her and society dictates that lovers wait.

    That is essentially the first four pages. Is that good enough to make you want to read the next four? Not the rest of the novel, but just the next four pages?

    Do you know what a Paha’ari is? Does it matter? Does the word “Paha’ari” stop you from reading because you don’t know what it means? Should I have done a backstory on the Paha’ari so that you would understand it? Or are you willing to wait for the explanation and just read the next four?

    A story is just a character in a setting with a problem. Every scene.

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