Over the past two weeks we’ve discussed the preparatory stages of writing our novels. We began with the research, worldbuilding, character development, and, for those who choose to do so, plot outlines that we do at the outset. Last week we talked about establishing voice at different levels — Authorial, Genre, Book, Character. This week, we’re going to start our book.
Last week, my discussion of voice overlapped with Catie’s posts on the same subject. This week I’m overlapping with Faith a bit in talking about book openings. Again, I think that having multiple perspectives on any of these topics is a good thing. We all approach writing differently, and what works for one of us might not work for another.
I often refer to myself as “an inertial writer.” [Inertia: a body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.] I write very slowly at the beginning of a new book or story — sometimes even at the start of a new chapter. The first day of actually writing a new book, I might only get a paragraph or two. On the second day, I’ll be lucky to get two pages. The third day is a little better, and by the end of the first week, I’m usually writing at close to my normal daily pace of eight pages, or about 2,000 words. It’s like getting a big rock rolling — it takes a while to kick my creativity into motion, but once it gets going, it glides along pretty well.
I have no secrets or tips for overcoming this initial inertia; if I did, I’d use them myself. I’ve come to see it as a natural part of my creative process. I don’t fight it anymore. And I’d suggest the same approach if you find that your first few days of writing are equally slow, or even if you encounter the same problem as you start a new chapter or part of your book. Creativity is not linear, it’s not always logical or consistent. Sometimes we have to be patient with ourselves and accept that some parts of writing a book are harder than others. If, after a couple of weeks, your output hasn’t improved, then you might want to consider a different approach. But for those first pages, even the first chapter or two, give yourself room to grow accustomed to your new project.
What about content? I want my opening lines to reach out and grab my reader by the collar. A novel, as opposed to a short story, can move at a leisurely pace. It doesn’t necessarily have to be nonstop action. Like a piece of music — be it a symphony or your favorite rock album — a good book (in my opinion) will have varying dynamics and rhythms: Vivace for some sections; adagio for others. Forte and then pianissimo. At times a book should leave a reader breathless with excitement and suspense. It should shock and frighten and arouse. But at other times, a reader should have a chance to catch his breath and regroup a little. There should be humor and quiet romance and time for a character (and the reader) to reflect. That said, I don’t believe that the opening pages are a time for reflection and calm. Like the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they should smack you in the forehead.
I try to come up with opening sentences and graphs that will catch a reader’s attention. Sometimes this means putting in action, or at least suspense. Sometimes this means trying something unusual, unexpected, even strange. In my second book, I wrote of the interaction between two societies: one without technology, one with. I wanted to convey immediately the sense among those without technology that they were out of their depth. And I imagined what it would be like to know only parchment and then encounter a written message from a society like ours. My opening:
The paper itself was a message. Immaculately white, its edges were as straight as sunbeams, its corners so sharp that they seemed capable of drawing blood.
It’s a bit odd to speak of a piece of paper in those terms, but “odd” was exactly what I was going for. Another example: In one of the Forelands books, I opened in the point of view of my villain:
What did it mean to be a God? Was it simply immortality that separated the great ones from those who lived on Elined’s earth? Was it their power to bend others to their will, their ability to shape the future and remake the world as they desired? Did he not possess those powers as well? Had he not made himself a god?
In this case, I wanted his voice to be the first that my readers encountered, because he was the character who was going to drive the story throughout the book.
Which leads us to this: In composing your opening, you need to decide a few things. First, who is your point of view character for this first passage? If you only have one for the book, that’s easy. If you have several, whose is the most compelling voice? Which character is most likely to intrigue and seduce your reader? For the purposes of the story, who is the most logical choice? Sometimes this will be the lead character. Sometimes it might be a secondary character who doesn’t even survive the chapter. I often start my books with a killing. I establish a point of view character and then promptly kill him off. Why? Because murders can be intriguing and exciting. And also because this quickly establishes in my reader’s mind that no character is safe. Even a POV character can die. When I threaten a character it might not be for effect; it might be for keeps.
Second, where in the narrative do you begin your story? This probably seems like a pretty basic question, but it’s more complicated than you might think. At times I like to jump right in to the action that drives the plot. Other times I like to introduce a character, and so will place him or her in a situation that’s only tangentially related to the main story line, but that establishes certain talents or abilities he/she might have that are essential to the story. And at still other times, I like to play with time and chronology.
Third, you also have decide the setting for that first scene — not just the where (inside a castle, out on a city street, in a space ship) but also the atmospherics: night or day, sunny or stormy, raucous or quiet.
Finally, you need to make sure that the opening works with the stylistic choices you made in your planning stage. Are the voices we talked about last week still right for what you’re writing, and does your opening begin to establish them? Will you write in first person or third? Will the ambiance you create be light or dark or somewhere in between? Are you writing in the noir voice of an urban fantasy, or in a style more appropriate for high fantasy?
I’m in the process of finishing the first chapter of the first Thief Taker book. My first sentence isn’t really strange or innovative, but it does put the reader right into the first action, which is what I was after. The first few pages offer insights into my lead character — his past, his strengths and weaknesses. They also tell us where we are and when, they set the mood for much of what follows, and they introduce the magic system. By the end of that first chapter, which is only about 2500 words, my reader should be informed enough to understand where they are, and intrigued enough to start reading chapter two. And ultimately, that’s what the book’s opening should do.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net