Tuesday, 9 March 2010

On Beginnings

As we have been told over and over and over again, beginnings of a novel are of supreme importance. If the first few pages, or even in extreme cases a first page, does not grab an agent or an editor, they are likely to move on to the next manuscript in the slush pile. Even assuming that somehow you managed to get through them because they recognized the talent, there are quite a lot of readers who are equally impatient. So beginnings are important.

So what do you do when you are writing your beginnings? Where do your stories start? What considerations you give them?

When I write my first draft, I start at whatever point comes in my mind as the beginning of a story. I have never had to wonder about it, because from the moment the story idea takes a seed and by the time I start writing the first draft I know where to start. It feels just the right place.

So why do things change when editing?

I believe it is because when we are writing the first draft, even the most organised writers who work with detailed outlines, we are still getting to know the story. Despite all the planning, a first draft is still very much an organic process - as it should be - so perhaps we put in more details, or an earlier start point than necessary. Agents often mention that from slush piles, books often start much later than the first page. Perhaps, it is the old student in us who remembers all the lessons where set-up was necessary in order to tell a story.

I thought I had started my book just at the right place. It started with action. It showed hero in his ordinary place, before the disturbance occurs. A classic mythic structure beginning. But then when I was editing it, the opening though action, didn't seem strong enough. It definitely seemed like a set-up, and not the story beginning. So I experimented, and tried to write that scene from a different point. I tried it by skipping first 4 pages. That didn't quite fit. So I started a new file, and tried yet another version - still skipping 4 pages, but also slightly rewriting. While I am by no means convinced if it is the perfect beginning, it does at present, feel stronger than the original.

Changing the beginning, and cutting out the set-up would also require rewrites in other scenes because people who showed up in the first few pages, now have to be introduced later, so I am working on changing rest of the first picture and see how everything would fit in.

Now, the book starts with the story, not with the set up. A part of me is wondering if it should be more in medias-res but that question needs some mulling over. One thing is certain, if it needs changing, I will change it.

But one thing we must all keep in mind is though beginnings are important, they are by no means the only important thing. If you want your tale to satisfy the readers, it must have a strong beginning, middle and end, and what you end up with a compelling book that people might be willing to lose sleep over.


  1. I wish I didn't have to write a beginning. Nothing gives me more trouble. I think I write a different beginning for every draft because I'm never satisfied.

    I've tried action. Too much. So I cut it out to get to know the character better first. Boring. It does help to have a completed draft so I know the ending. Then I can go back and write a proper beginning.

  2. I don't write my beginnings first. I have once, but it sucked, and I ended up changing it. For me, I write the scenes in my head and piece them all together. Including the beginning scene.

  3. Matt, when I first start writing, I don't worry about it at all. With editing, it is a nightmare though.


    I tried writing random scenes for one book, but I have found it just doesn't work for me. I need to follow some sort of structure, otherwise it gets too daunting at editing time when I find plot holes.

  4. I tried writing random scenes for my first NaNo and I'm still editing that sucker! Although I don't outline, I do follow a structure in my head. Sometimes my beginning may change, but that's always where I start.

  5. Yes my random scene books are still waiting, and I will have to do a complete rewrite on them.