So I’m just getting started writing the sixth Walker Papers novel, and although I’m entirely enjoying writing it, it’s very likely I’ve started too early. Not, like, “Oops, I don’t need to write this for another six months,” but “Oops, I’ve written a chapter and a half of material that comes before the place/time that the book should actually begin.”
This is a pretty common writer’s phenomenon. I wrote a 7000 word opening chapter for PRETENDER’S CROWN that was completely unnecessary. In fact, it did wrong things for the book, setting up a (metaphorical) gun in the first act that the character I wrote about couldn’t use later because it was a different character’s gimmick. Ne’er the twain could meet. Or, another example: I started the fifth Walker Papers in *completely* the wrong place, and threw away three or four attempts at getting the story going because I *wanted* it to start with Dramatic Event #1. I finally gave in and started somewhere else, and the event that was so important I’d wanted to start with it didn’t show up for over a hundred pages…and that was where it *belonged*.
It’s incredibly depressing to cut 7000 words from your book straight off, even if you know–and with PRETENDER’S CROWN, I pretty much did–that it’s starting in the wrong place. Critically, though, that wrong start helped me get into the flow of writing in that world again, so it was absolutely time well spent. Similarly, I expect, with this 5.5K I’ve written so far on WP#6: it doesn’t so much matter if it’s wrong, if it gets me to the right place. Right now, where it opens allows me to introduce a new character right away–but I’m almost certain there’ll be a second opportunity to introduce her in a different way…and I suspect I already know what that way is. I’m also pretty sure I know where the book *should* start, and I’ll get there in another 1500 words or so.
The important part is telling the difference between what’s necessary and what’s not, and not getting too attached to the things that aren’t. It’s not easy: neither learning to tell the difference, nor letting go of the wrong bits. It took six drafts of HANDS OF FLAME for me to give up a character I loved but who just utterly, utterly screwed up the storytelling conflict and potential of the book. It took *four* drafts before I even realized she was the (or a) problem, and two more to stop trying to rewrite her and instead write her *out*. And that was my fourteenth or somethingth novel!
There are usually clues: is it moving slowly? are you introducing a lot of back story in the first ten pages/chapter? is there some kind of action to draw the reader in? (Even the prologue of THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, which is *entirely* back story and also isn’t written in an action-oriented voice, has what, two deaths, a seduction and implied murder…) is there a way you can work part or all of the front-loaded story in later? Those are all things to look at in trying to determine whether the story has started in the right place. If you have a beta reader who says something like “It really picked up around page fifty”, it’s worth considering the possibility that the book ought to start at page fifty, instead of page one. 🙂