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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