Thursday, May 6, 2010

Where do I start?

I am currently revising the ms I wrote during NanoWriMo 2009 and the most difficult task I've faced with it is where to start.

Before you start writing, you'll need to know your world inside and out. Even if you're basing your setting on the place you live you need to know it and know it well. And you need to know your characters better than you know yourself. Those things are important for writing a salable book, but how do you know where to begin telling your story once you've planned it out?

You can start with a bang, right in the middle of intense action, but then the rest of the story might fall flat and loose suspension (see Valerie's post). Personally I don't like to read a book or watch a movie where something awesome happens right away, and then I have to read/watch the events that lead up to it. It can be done well, but it's not for me. Like Valerie mentioned, SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson does this well, but the big bad thing that happened to the MC didn't happen at the start of the book. It happened in the past and we read about the after.

You can start with pages of back story, but if the first page doesn't grab your teen audience, chances are they won't read much farther. If you're looking for an agent, Jim McCarthy of Dystel Goderich Literary Agency once said that you have about 6.2 seconds to impress him and then he moves on. With the very first novel length work I wrote I ended up cutting about twenty pages from the beginning. It wasn't necessarily back story but it was too much description and too little action. My lovely Sisters clued me in on that. :-)

GOING BOVINE is an example of a good book that starts a little slow. Cameron tells us the best day of his life was when he almost died at Disneyland. Attention grabber! But then we read all about how that happened and then we move into the story where not much is going on right away. The voice and the characters are what moves that story in the beginning. If we didn't know Cameron the way we do, when the change comes in to his life we might not feel sympathetic enough to really care.

So how do you decide where to start your story?

Each story is different. Some of them need to start with more action, some with less. I think the main thing is that you start with a change. If your character is happy with her life, something needs to happen right away to change that and throw her off-kilter. Weave back story in later and only if it's important. If you have anything to add, this newbie would love to know!

I've got to get back on my revisions, so I will leave you with John Dufresne's 10 commandments for writers:

  1. Sit your ass in the chair.
  2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
  3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
  4. Honor the lives of your characters.
  5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
  6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
  7. Thou shalt steal.
  8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
  9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
  10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.


  1. It's number 8, 'rewrite and rewrite again' that's killing me! :)

  2. My family has problems with #3.

  3. That's why my writing time is after the kids are in bed! :)

  4. Funny, I wound up cutting the first twenty pages out of a WIP too. It was so liberating! Like you said, starting at a moment of change is SO important. And even if nothing "happens" at the very beginning of the story, we at least need the sense that something is going to happen very soon. I love the commandments, by the way!

  5. Great post! I find that a lot of times, I have to write my way into a story. It takes a bit of kind of feeling it out, and info dumping before I realize where the story I want to tell needs to begin.

    There's a commandment missing for me. It's:

    Thou shalt not shower, clean, do laundry, or remember to eat until you get this story out of you.

    Or is that just me?

  6. This is great of you to discuss, thanks L.J, but as you pointed out it is so subjective. It's funny how what sells and what stands the test of time can be so different. Look at the Lord of the Rings. It takes hundreds of pages to really get the action going, it probably wouldn't get published that way today, and yet it is one of the most loved stories of all time.

    For me I have changed the beginning over and over. It is the most important part if you care about becoming published. I started with a twist on setting which was unique but didn't work because it was too much at once, and then it jumped into back story for too long. Currently I start with the back story, to connect the reader to the MC, but I cover it quickly.

    I'm not sure if this will be the right beginning in the long run either. But I do like it better so far.

  7. Valerie, it's not just you. I end up eating only what snacks I have in reach. I binge on coffee and I don't put away laundry until I see my husband rooting through baskets for clean socks.

    Anna, it is liberating after you get past the wanting to cry stage, lol!

    Matt, I forgot about LOTR! Great example!

  8. Beginnings are so important! I love how you reference Going Bovine as it is one of my favorite books. And you are right, it does start a little slow, but the voice still pulls you in. For me though, it isn't so much the beginning as the mushy middle that makes me cringe.

  9. I'm struggling with my beginning right now!! Got some good feedback from crit group last night, but it's nervewracking bc you're absolutely right, we have to grab that agent/audience/editor IMMEDIATELY.

    Personally, that's why I didn't buy GOING BOVINE. Mary Kole posted a cool review of it, but I couldn't get through the first chapter w/o that bored feeling in the pit of my stomach. I DO NOT want to do that to my audience. lol.

    Love the writing commandments. Thanks for the cool post.

  10. I definitely think Dufresne's first rule is one of the most important lessons any writer needs to learn.

  11. Ha! Love the 10 commandments. We always try to start things off with a bang and keep the pace up throughout the story. It's not easy, but we like our mysteries twisty!

  12. Ugh. I'm most at war with beginnings. I can never seem to get the beginning of a novel right, not until several revisions!

  13. Ahahahaahah!! I just love those ten rules you put up. I hope I've managed to upkeep some of them. I know it's been a long while since I've written anything but i've been so busy with work and school. I've put up a new entry and I do do you'll like it. Take care!


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