Start on Page 30: Kicking off your novel

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A pattern has emerged in my long fiction over the last quarter century. I’m hopeless at beginnings. Or at least I am in the first draft. Even when I plot a novel out pretty tightly I take too long to get the story going. I’ve glimpsed this in my work many times, but it was brought front and center by my current editor after I turned in the second of my middle grades adventures. The 13 page (single spaced) edit memo I received 3 weeks ago, is enthusiastic, helpful in all kinds of specific ways and makes a couple of first rate suggestions to help resolve a couple of plot/character issues. Some of those points have forced me to think through things I had side-stepped in the writing (issues of world building, internal logic etc.) which have taken real mental effort and man hours, but nothing has given me more fits than the note to get into the story faster.

I always do this. I’ve written murder mysteries in which no one died for over a hundred pages. I’ve written thrillers in which there was no action sequence until a quarter of the way in. I’ve written fantasy adventures in which nothing of any significance happened until I had laid out four or five chapters explaining the social structure and magic system of my world. In each case the reader was snoring softly by the time things really kicked off.

Everyone knows that this is stupid, that you have to start the story with a bang, that the slow simmer to a single final scene climax just doesn’t work in genre fiction, not any more. I know this. I just find it really hard to do.

In the case of some books which never got published, I never fixed the problem, but usually I do, though it takes several drafts and a great deal of angst and frustration to do so. The first version of my current WIP took about 30 pages to get to a real action scene which was also the moment my hero runs into what turns out to be the engine of the whole book: an incident (consider it inciting) which drives the bulk of his goals/needs for the rest of the book.

Now 30 pages isn’t such a terrible time to wait if you like the words, the characters, the setting that the author is giving you, but it requires faith on the part of the reader that things are going to pick up. We all know how easily distracted we are, how short our attention spans seem to be getting, and the truth is that we just don’t cut authors that much slack anymore, even if we know the author and trust them to deliver the goods in time. Put yourself in the mind of someone who doesn’t know your work, a reviewer, say, or a book buyer for B&N, or an editor, or an agent. None of these people are invested in you. What that means is that if the book doesn’t grab them in the first 30 pages, they’re going to move on to something else that might.

Harsh, but true. Welcome to the NFL.

So I’m wrestling with this now, as I try to cut out the first 30 pages, get right into the action, then find ways (preferably without the dreaded flashback) of working whatever I think is worth saving from those first pages into the story thereafter. There is no doubt in my mind that doing this is making for a better, more dynamic and engaging book, but it is also—not to put too fine a point on it—an absolute swine of a job. The time line is all screwy. Things which used to be consequences of previous incidents now happen out of the blue, and the previous incidents have to be somehow layered in. Trickiest of all, the gentle, carefully observed character stuff I had been packing into the first pages so that the reader would care about my protagonist before things started getting crazy, now has to be worked in after the narrative has hit top gear. I’m having to lose stuff I liked, and be incredibly inventive to save the stuff I can’t part with.

It is, for me, the hardest part of writing.

There’s an old rule of thumb in film: get into the scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. There’s something to be said for this as an approach to novels in general and opening scenes in particular. A lot of what you think you need to lay the groundwork of the story, you don’t. Dive in and connect the dots thereafter.

Now I don’t want top re-open the plotter/pantser debate, but I will say this. If you don’t plan the start of your book really carefully you are likely (not definitely, but likely) to run into this problem, and for most of us it is incredibly difficult to fix alone. I needed my editor to say “start here,” and “we don’t need to know this bit yet: save it till the reader is hooked by the story.” I’m not sure I could do it alone, even when I recognize the problem.

The problem is that authors experience their books as a totality in their minds while their readers experience them moment to moment as a series of revelations and surprises. The author knows when details are significant because he or she knows what is coming, while the reader does not. Burying clues or character notes at the beginning might serve the end of the story well, but if they don’t feel urgent and compelling at the beginning as the reader encounters them, there ain’t gonna be an ending. Not for that reader.

What you might try to do is simply this. Put the book away (even if it’s not finished) and try to forget about it. Then start reading it as if it was written by someone else and ask yourself a simple question: would I keep reading this if I knew nothing about where the story was going? Be honest. Then start cutting.

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16 comments to Start on Page 30: Kicking off your novel

  • A J I just wanted to mention that I have the exact opposite problem. It is usually the last thirty pages that I have the most trouble with. But then again everyone writes differently.

    -Ian
    http://iandscofield.com

  • **The problem is that authors experience their books as a totality in their minds while their readers experience them moment to moment as a series of revelations and surprises.**

    This, I believe, accounts for 80-90% of the problems we encounter with writing a novel. And while putting a book away for a short time helps, you really need long enough to forget it. As I’m prepping to release my backlist as ebooks, I’ve discovered I’ve forgotten enough of my older work that I can truly approach it as if it wasn’t mine. I can read it with only a hazy idea of what might come — and I’ve been wrong a few times! Of course, this length of time isn’t really practical, but that’s why we all need editors!

  • AJ, I almost never have the *starts too slow* problem. In fact, I started sooooo *late* in the action on the WIP, that editorial notes from both agent and editor suggested (as in required, but politely) that I write a totally new scene / new first chapter, slow the pace down and restructure everything in the first third of the book. Same slog, different song.

    Hmmm. I bet that if we ever wrote something together we’d come to blows on the opening! Or… Maybe it would be perfect the very first time. LOL

  • Thanks guys. Yes, not everyone has this problem, and I know several writers who struggle more with endings than beginnings, and I’m sure that creates other kinds of problems. But if you’ve read a book as far as the end then you’re already invested in the book. If you are an agent or editor, you might have suggestions for the author as to how to fix it so that finishes stronger. But if the problem is at the beginning, the reader is likely to just quit, and then you’re sunk!

    And yes, Stuart, I think that the hardest thing for a writer is to see his/her book the way someone else will. There’s no easy route to dealing with this, though putting as much time between you and the original draft is, as you say, teh best solution I know, though it can take a long time before you really see it fresh. The other (equally time consuming) solution is practice. Write lots. Read lots. Eventually you’ll get better at treating your own work as soemthing you just picked up in teh bookstore.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for an interesting post, AJ. I’ve also had a TERRIBLE time with the beginning of my WIP because of, as you say, the need to balance world-building and set-up against starting out with a bang. I feel like my real problem, though, is sort of a miniature version of this, where every one of my CHAPTERS starts out really slow and takes a few pages to get to the point. You’ve already provided the solution for that, though, which is practice, practice, practice. I’ve still got lots of necessary practice ahead, though, and then there’s the whole next-set-of-revisions thing, where I’ll need to turn what I’ve got so far into something nice…

  • Shawna

    Unfortunately, the ‘put it away and come back to it like a reader’ trick never works for me. I am quite possibly the single most forgiving reader in the history of ever. In my entire reading life, I only recall putting a book down unfinished once I’d started reading twice. One was Contact by Carl Sagan, which was just so painfully scientifically dry that my poor 14 year old brain gave up halfway through. The other was War of the Unicorns which I’d picked up from the library expecting something to do with…well, unicorns, and wound up neck deep in what seemed like nothing but hundreds of pages of politics.

    Otherwise, I always finish a book I start, and I can’t think of a single one I’ve ever read that felt like a waste of time afterwards. Some I liked more than others, certainly, I’ve never even considered putting a book down after the first page or the first chapter. Imagine my surprise when I learned how common it was!

    Luckily I’m not too bad with long, rambling starts, or I might be in trouble. :)

  • I have this problem, too, and to compound it, I won’t go an further until I feel like I’ve got the opening right, so I end up writing a dozen or more openings. I still don’t get it just right, but it takes me that long to even come close enough that I feel good about continuing.

  • In my complete and total ignorance, I had no idea how to start my first novel.

    So I didn’t.

    Instead, I wrote the first scene that was clear in my mind. The book took off from there and I wrote about the first quarter of it before I had a good idea of what I needed to write in front of that “first” scene so it would make sense.

    I basically started as a pantser (I didn’t know what to write, so I just started writing), but as soon as I got to (what I now know as) the first plot point, I got stuck.

    What do I write next? That’s when I started using the snowflake method and a “beat sheet” to plan the rest of the book. Figuring out what had to go in front of that first scene came pretty easily, once I knew where I was going.

    Of course, a real editor may disagree with my novice assessment of the situation. We’ll see!

  • Razziecat

    Beginnings are sometimes a problem for me, but only until I come up with that magical first sentence. That always inspires me to flesh out the scene, and that gives me the beginning. I tend to have more problems further on, when I can see several ways for the story to go and I’m not sure which path to take.

    Now, D.R., what exactly is the snowflake method, and what’s a beat sheet?

  • “start reading it as if it was written by someone else”

    Thank you, A.J. I tried this today, and it did help. Probably not as much as I could because I’d already started working on edits before this, but I noticed a few things.

  • Jeremy Beltran

    Im having the hardest problem starting my new WIP. I keep seeing the first action as a cliff and Im trying to figure out how close to the cliff to start. Ive started way too far a few times and im inching closer with each restart. But I really think I need to just push my MC off the cliff and see what he does. Maybe that will fix my problem and start his.

  • Hmmm. For some reason the comment/responses I posted (ir thught I’d posted) yesterday didn’t come through. Apologies. Some quick responses.

    Hep,
    I don’t think slow boil chapters are necessarily a bad thing, but–as you suggest–it’s good to mix things up a bit. If you are getting to action, suspense or whatever raises the pulse rate, trying ending chapters in different places (with a cliff hanger, say) so that the next one starts with a bang. Any point in a narrative can be made into a chapter ending if you punch it up a bit.

    Shawna,
    you are now my favorite reader :) I’m similar in that I rarely abandon a book mid way through, but I’m a slow reader and if soemthing loses my attention I will dump it. If you can’t assess this problem for yurself, you might need soem trustworthy beta readers who will tell you (kindly, supportively) “this is where I would have put it down…”

    Ed,
    that’s a tough one. For me, powering through is key, because I need to know what comes next to see if the beginning works, you know? I often have to finish the whole book before I can come back and start finishing my throat-clearing beginning.

    DRM
    I think it’s a great idea to write the bits you know and then figure out how to connect them. Of course, you’re going to have to do some fairly brutal editing later, and you’ll need to be really sure that everything does connect in the way you want it to, but there’s absolutely no law that says you have to write as you would read (i.e. sequentially, beginning to end). You will have to do that later to make sure it works, but not necessarily initially.

    Razzie,
    yes, first sentences are key. Just don’t assume your glittering prose will stop readers from noticing that nothing is happening. Unless you are working in a particular kind of literary fiction, it won’t :) And no, that doesn’t mean you have to start with a car chase, just soemthing that will really grab the reader and hold them.

    Laura,
    as Stuart says, reading your own work as if it was by someone else is incredibly hard to pull off, but I think it’s one of the greatest skills a writer can acquire. Think how many times you’ve had students respond to your comments on papers saying “yeah but what I meant was…” Intention matters not. Effect is all :)

    Jeremy,
    I know nothing about your project, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but yes, push him off the cliff and see what happens. Think how electrifying it is to be dropped into the thick of the story right from the get go. Graham Greene was a brilliant writer of what we might call literary fiction, but has his opening line for Brighton Rock is as great as anything from the hardest boiled thriller: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’. Talk about jump-starting your story!

  • Razziecat: Sorry about speaking in code. I figure everyone here knows way more than me, so anything I know about is old news to the rest of you all!

    The Snowflake Method is something popularized by Randy Ingermanson, lately of Fiction Writing for Dummies fame. His method is a story structure technique that helped me go from an initial incomplete concept to a full plan for a novel in a really short time (like, two or three weeks). You start at a very high level and drill down incrementally into your story, alternating at each layer between character development and plot development. You can find out more about it here:
    http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

    I’ve seen a “beat sheet” described a couple of ways, but the tool I’m talking about is the one Larry Brooks describes on his blog and in his book Story Engineering. It too is a story structure technique. The idea is to lay out the basic framework of your novel in a spreadsheet, where each line is a scene. The tool makes it easy to get the big picture on your story flow, and it you can more easily see how you might rearrange scenes for maximum impact. You can read more here:
    http://storyfix.com/storytelling-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drummer

    FYI: Anyone who prides him/herself on being a “pantser” would probably hate both of these tools. I was a pantser for my first month or so of writing, but turned into a big story structure fan after learning these techniques.

  • AJ: It’s funny you mentioned brutal editing. That is what put the brakes on my writing after that initial stretch. I wrote the first scene I had in my head and then continued the story in sequence from there. When I got to the end of that sequence (which turned out to be the first plot point at the end of Act 1), I realized that I couldn’t go on writing that way, or I’d have a huge mess to clean up. I had to step back at that point and figure out the entire rest of the novel before I felt like I could start writing again. That was the moment I learned that I’m not actually a pantser!

  • Razziecat: I didn’t ignore you. I posted an explanation with links, and the comment is apparently awaiting moderation (probably because of said links.) Hopefully someone will authorize it soon, or else I’ll re-post it without links later.

  • One last time. I tried posting this twice with variations on how I did the links, so I’ll just take them out this time and see what happens…

    —————————————————-

    Razziecat: Sorry about speaking in code. I figure everyone here knows way more than me, so anything I know about is old news to the rest of you all!

    The Snowflake Method is something popularized by Randy Ingermanson, lately of Fiction Writing for Dummies fame. His method is a story structure technique that helped me go from an initial incomplete concept to a full plan for a novel in a really short time (like, two or three weeks). You start at a very high level and drill down incrementally into your story, alternating at each layer between character development and plot development. You can find out more about it on Randy’s web site (AdvancedFictionWriting dot com).

    I’ve seen a “beat sheet” described a couple of ways, but the tool I’m talking about is the one Larry Brooks describes on his blog and in his book Story Engineering. It too is a story structure technique. The idea is to lay out the basic framework of your novel in a spreadsheet, where each line is a scene. The tool makes it easy to get the big picture on your story flow, and you can more easily see how you might rearrange scenes for maximum impact. You can read more at Larry’s blog (StoryFix dot com). Just look for the article titled “Storytelling to the Beat of a Different Drummer.”

    FYI: Anyone who prides him/herself on being a “pantser” would probably hate both of these tools. I was a pantser for my first month or so of writing, but turned into a big story structure fan after learning these techniques.