Starting too early

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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. :)

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7 comments to Starting too early

  • Catie I’m on my copy edits of Blood Cross, and the new opening (which I *did not* want to write) works beautifully. Mind you, I resisted adding 1500 words to the opening. Resisted hard. But my editor was right. It works better. The *dead body on page one* style opening I brought over from my mystery/thriller days just didn’t work here. And this is my 20-something novel. I will *never* learn how to do this without a good editor. I will always need to be nudged into the right direction. (Herded, shoved, goaded, prodded…)
    Well said.

  • Another great post, and perfectly timed for me! I’m working on revisions at the moment and I suspect I may have to lose a large part of my first chapter… I am even beginning to have the horrible suspicion that a character has been introduced in the wrong place. *sigh* I’ve been bashing my head against these rewrites for weeks, and now I think I know why. You’ve really helped me, thanks. :)

  • My current WIP started at around page 25 in reality. The main focus of my story is about a girl and her inner/outer stuggles but there is not much action. The other half of the story is about a warrior bandit who tries to take over the world. So yeah, the action lies in the later option and as such, I had to go back and rework the story around him at the beginning.

  • Paul Martin

    I’m not published yet, but am an aspiring writer. It’s good to know that others must go through these processes as well. I had to rewrite my work at least a dozen times because I didn’t think it worked, but I didn’t know why! Thanks so much for your post.

  • So, my WIP is actually one of my original stories I came up with a long time ago. It’s opening has changed a bit:

    *It originally opened up on the night of the first day of the year, and quickly launched into a terrible deed that changes everyone’s lives.

    I realized that the read really had no attachment to anyone yet and that having this event happen so soon might be an issue so:

    *I opened the book 1 week earlier, on the squire’s 15th birthday. This allowed me to introduce the main characters and the dynamics.

    That was a long time ago. As I’ve progressed in world building and developing the story (as well as future events impacted by this story) so many things have changed that this opening was no longer right.

    So:

    *I opened the story about 1 month prior to the squire’s 15th birthday, with a scene right in the middle of the action, throwing the reader into the story along with the squire.

    And yet, even though this works (or at least I think so) I decided recently to add one short chapter before this from the POV of one of the main antagonists.

    *This new opening scene allows me to show a critical piece of world building rather seemlessly, as well as add in a threat the protagonists are unaware of.

    I think it will work.

    Of course, not yet being published (and thus lacking the advice of both Agent and Editor) who knows?

    In looking back over other things I have written, I tend to start a story too late and then backtrack the timeline as I have for this WIP.

  • Is it starting to early to be working on something that I haven’t even sold yet when I have yet another deadline looming in January? Or is that just normal insanity?

  • That’s totally normal, Di. :)