Starting a Shift

Seems like yesterday, but in November, 2015, Kitty asked a question about how to write a prison break and avoid cliches. In January, 2016, I wrote a post on the subject–http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2016/01/20/lemme-out-convincingly/–and recently the universe responded with its own solution–peanut butter! You may have read about this. More than one prisoner was involved, which is not what Kitty was looking for, but from the description, the break could have been carried out by just one, and it certainly avoids cliche. Happily, all prisoners have been returned to jail. You can read about it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/us/alabama-inmates-escape-peanut-butter.html?_r=0.

And this lovely, in-depth article appeared recently in the HuffPost about the twentieth anniversary of Ella Enchanted. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ella-enchanted-feminist-nostalgia_us_597bb2e7e4b02a8434b6866e.

On to this post. On July 5, 2017, Bookfanatic wrote, Does anyone have any ideas that will help me with the beginning of my story? My MC went to live with the fairies when she was six but I’m not sure how to write the transition from living with her aunt to living with the fairies.

Samantha wrote in response, How about a prologue?

And I suggested that Bookfanatic read The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which I’ve mentioned here before. In The Moorchild the process goes the other way. A half-elf whose mother is an elf is banished from the elves’ Mound and sent to grow up in a human family. McGraw begins with the grandmother in the human family who suspects that Moql (elf name)/Saaski (human name) is a changeling. After this start in current time, McGraw seamlessly transitions on page 13 to a flashback that provides the backstory. The writing is superb, and the temporal change works.

But I’m not a fan of either prologues or backstories if we can avoid them. Prologues worry me because some people (like me sometimes) skip them.
And I’m not crazy about flashbacks because they divert attention from the action moving forward. That diversion can–briefly–weaken readers’ interest, and, in a split second, we can lose them.

On the other hand, some readers and writers love them. Readers may feel a backstory lets them in on a secret, which has more than enough charm to make up for the distraction. And writers may feel they’re giving the reader a peek behind the story curtain.

So take your pick.

However, in this case, straightforward telling (and showing) seems called for. Our story can begin with our MC–let’s call her Lacy–in her aunt’s home, engaged in her ordinary routine. Let’s say she’s eating breakfast.

We don’t know if the aunt in Bookfanatic’s story is a good character or a villain. If she’s bad, Lacy’s breakfast may be half a slice of burnt toast. If she’s good, it may be a ripe peach, a fried egg, and oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar, which would have been my favorite if I had been a sensible child. In fact, my fave was six slices of white bread with the crusts removed, which, inexplicably, my parents let me eat day after day.

Let’s imagine that the aunt is bad. The fairy materializes in the kitchen, waves the burnt toast in the aunt’s face and intones in a mellow fairy voice, “This is what you give my godchild?” Before Lacy’s startled eyes, the aunt becomes a toad.

The fairy smiles fetchingly and waves her wand, and Lacy finds herself seated at the fairy’s fairyland dining table. A napkin unfolds in the air and settles gently in Lacy’s lap. Breakfast appears on the empty plate.

The fairy beams. “Dig in, darling child.”

The scents are unfamiliar, but Lacy picks up her spoon, fearing that if she doesn’t eat she’ll become a toad, too.

And so on. Breakfast can be delicious or odd. We move onto the progression of Lacy’s first day, using showing to reveal her disorientation, her mistakes, and the differences between the two worlds. We can use telling to reveal the reasons, beyond burnt toast, that explain why the fairy swooped in. If we’re writing in first person, Lacy’s older self, who’s narrating the story, can provide the answers. If we’re using third person, the narrator can reveal the reasons. This explanation can be woven into the showing, a sentence here, a sentence there.

Or we can start even earlier, say in Lacy’s infancy, again using showing to set up the conditions that will lead to the fairy’s intervention. If we approach it this way, we won’t need the narrative explanations.

(Obviously, what I’ve invented probably has nothing to do with Bookfanatic’s plot. The fairies themselves may need the child. Or a zillion other possibilities.)

If the main story takes place a long while later, say, when Lacy is sixteen, we may want to use telling to sketch in a few events in her life between then and now, so that the hop doesn’t feel abrupt.

When we bring the story into the present, we can echo the original situation. Lacy, older now, is eating breakfast across from the fairy and pouring caterpillar milk into her grass-seed cereal from a china pitcher in the shape of a toad.

Lacy and the scenario I’ve laid out may be charming, but it won’t really start the story unless we introduce the central problem of the tale early. We want to get the reader worried as quickly as we can, if possible in the first scene–not full-blown, but in a less emotion-packed way. Suppose the central conflict is a lack of understanding between humans and fairies. Well, we see evidence of it in the fairy’s failure to notice Lacy’s terror when her aunt was turned into a toad.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the first scene in the Lacy story with no flashbacks, just forward action.

∙ Write the first scene using a flashback.

∙ Write the scene when Lacy leaves the fairy’s dining room and enters the wider world of fairyland. Show the differences, Lacy’s confusion, her false assumptions, her missteps.

∙ Write the beginning scene in your telling of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go back in time as far as you need to in order to write the story without flashbacks, which may be the birth of Rumpelstiltskin or something in the life of the king, the miller, or his daughter.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Rolling the doughnut

Before I start the post, there’s this: Reggie bit our garden hose in hopes of creating a fountain–and succeeded. I discovered it because I heard clicking, which turned out to come from Reggie’s teeth as he bit water repeatedly. David caught it all on video and put it on my website. If you have any interest in seeing our crazy dog, here’s the link:

http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html. Just click on the first video with the nightscape and full moon.

On April 11, 2016, Nicole wrote:

Q#1-How do I write the beginning and get the ball rolling? I always have exact plans for how I want the plot, middle, and ending to go, but when I plan on paper, my beginning always reads something like, “MC Jane sat on her bed eating a donut.” No specifics. I’m blank on how to start the story to get the reader interested. I’ve re-read my old works and they’re always boring and dry in the first few paragraphs.

Nicole had two more questions about beginnings, which I’m saving for my next post.

Christie V Powell responded:

1. Beginnings are the hardest part for me. The rest of the writing goes okay, but getting started feels like pulling teeth, one word at a time. Sometimes telling myself to just write something, no matter the quality, and I’ll fix it later, helps a little. Another thing that sometimes helps, if you know the ending, is to figure out what opening might start your story heading toward that eventual ending–my WIP starts with the main character sneaking into an enemy camp, which she will have to do again, more dangerously, in the climax.

And Christie V Powell had more to say, which I’m also holding back till next time.

I agree with Christie V Powell that not worrying about the beginning is important. My beginnings usually change and often disappear. As a pantser, I don’t even always know what story I’m really telling when I start.

Below, just for fun, are the first three paragraphs from the earliest version of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can find, which I think I also put in Writing Magic::

Fable has multiplied us. Perhaps the hall of mirrors where we danced is to blame. Instead of twenty-four, we were only six. Three princesses. Three princes.

There was always one soldier. Fable did not multiply him. Fable couldn’t, not such a one as he. But the old woman, the one who gave him the cloak of invisibility, she is entirely fable. There was no such person.

And Father did not have any princes killed. He has many faults, but murder is not one of them. The fable is more exciting, I suppose, if the princes have to pay for failure with their lives. But it strains credulity, and it simply wasn’t true.

It’s a nice beginning. Maybe someday I can go back to it, but not a sentence of it appears in the published book. I was trying to novelize “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which I found impossible, although others have succeeded. My story changed, and I discarded the beginning, although, obviously, following my own advice, I saved it.

However, even in this aborted attempt, I was following one of Christie V Powell’s suggestions, in that I was setting up my story. I knew I couldn’t deal with twenty-four main characters, so I shrank the number right off. And, since I had never been able to figure out the motivation of the old lady with the cloak of invisibility, I ditched her. Finally, I eliminated all the decapitated un-enchanted princes, because I couldn’t tolerate all those innocent deaths.

Christie V Powell’s idea is even better, though: to hint at the conflict that will motivate the whole story. Let’s see if we can do so using Nicole’s example: Jane sat on her bed eating a donut with Christie’s advice.

Remember lists, a writer’s most useful tool, from a recent post? Let’s list how we might use the sentence to foreshadow what will go on in our story. Below is a list of eight possibilities As an early prompt, come up with four more. Notice that mine got wilder as I kept going. No idea is too foolish to go on a list:

∙ The donut is poisoned.

∙ Jane is stress-eating.

∙ Jane’s dad is strict! If he catches her eating in her room, the consequences will be dire.

∙ Jane’s school has started a program to reduce obesity among the student body. When she gets to school she will have to get on a scale. She’s overweight, and a lot of shaming is going on.

∙ Same as the last one, except Jane was only a pound over her ideal weight the last week, but she’s a perfectionist.

∙ Someone is hiding under Jane’s bed.

∙ Jane is secretly a super hero whose power comes from donuts.

∙ Jane’s house is about to explode, and she will be the sole survivor.

Nicole asked how to get into specifics, and Christie V Powell suggested that the direction of the story can help. So let’s look at a few of my possibilities. If the donut is poisoned, we will probably dwell on its appearance, flavor, smell, taste, and we may reveal–or hold off on revealing–where the donut came from. If Jane’s house is about to explode and the explosion isn’t connected to the donut and she’s going to lose some of the people she loves the most, we may want to go into detail about how the donut came to her. Did somebody buy her favorite flavor for her? Or did her brother buy the kind she hates most because they’re arguing? Or anything else that may heighten what comes next.

So this strategy is to think about whatever we started with and how it fits into the main idea of our story. If we don’t see an obvious connection, we make a list.

Another strategy is to write the stuff that seems boring to you, just to do it, just to get it out of the way and move onto the part you’re happy about. When you get a few pages into that and your story is rolling along, go back and escort the beginning you don’t like into a separate document, so you’re saving it but you’re not keeping it in the story.

I don’t like dry and boring beginnings–who does? And we want to avoid having them, but we also don’t need the terrible pressure of feeling our beginning has to be perfect or that we have to snag people in the first sentence. Most readers will hang in for a few paragraphs or a few pages. Some forgiving readers will hang in a lot longer. They will have liked the cover, the jacket copy, and they’ll wait to be rewarded. One of my favorite books (It’s for adults but as I remember it, it should be fine for middle school readers. Still check with an actual grownup to be sure.) is Time and Again by Jack Finney, which doesn’t really get good until around page fifty-one. It’s a time travel historical novel about New York City at the time when money was being raised to erect the Statue of Liberty. It’s got adventure and romance, and one learns a lot.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick one of my or your donut possibilities and write the story.

∙ Change the beginning of your donut story so there’s no donut and it starts at a different point.

∙ Write the beginning of a long version of one of my favorite myths: “Cupid and Psyche.”

∙ Write a shopping list and make it the beginning of your story, and through the items on the list start the main conflict.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Ready, set, beginnings

On August 5, 2014, nevvawinter wrote, I have a question about beginning a story. I often come up with elements for a story, such as a setting and a character or some dialogue and a conflict, but I have trouble putting these elements together and adding elements to make a complete story out of my initial slightly-fuzzy vision. Any advice would be appreciated.

I have all those problems, too!

End of post.

Just fooling–about it being the end of the post.

I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre prequel that I’m working on right now by telling the reader something my main character doesn’t find out until much later. It’s a dramatic revelation, and it provides instant interest. I’ve been sending my editor fifty-page chunks of the manuscript to keep me from getting seriously off track, and she disagrees with my choice. She thinks the reader shouldn’t learn this truth until my MC does. Maybe she’s right. I won’t be sure–if I ever am sure–until I finish the book and go back and probably try it the other way.

In Two Princesses itself I didn’t get the beginning right until after the advance reading copy had gone out to reviewers–for which the book suffered in the reviews. Then I finally figured it out, and the published beginning is fine, or so I believe.

Before I was a writer I used to paint, and I loved using watercolor. But in watercolor you cannot correct mistakes–or you can, but to a very small degree. Oil is more forgiving; still, in all of painting that isn’t done digitally, earlier versions are covered over. It’s hard to go back.

Writing is infinitely forgiving, especially writing on a computer or laptop, but even pen-and-paper writing is, too, as long as we don’t destroy what went before or cross out so mercilessly that the earlier version becomes indecipherable.

I love that. It takes all the worry out of beginnings. I often start in one place then realize that important scenes precede my beginning, so I add them to the front, sometimes more than once.

Or, going the other way, I may discover that my beginning presents information that the reader doesn’t need. It’s back story that helps me develop my character or my plot, but it doesn’t come into the present adventure. When that happens, I move the unnecessary part into a document called Extra, in case I discover a use for it later.

When I’m fooling around with an idea for a book or a story, I write a lot of notes. Many writers think without writing. They may stare out their window, daydreaming productively.. I can do a little of that, but usually my mind really shifts into gear when I’m typing. I write about where my idea might take me, what characters I need to put it in motion. I may think about the setting, the world it will be in. Often I wonder if there’s a fairy tale I can use to help me with my plot. During this process a beginning usually comes to me. The way that it generally comes has to do with the conflict at the heart of my idea. When that happens, I write my tentative first scene and then go back to my notes.

One way to begin is to start with the central conflict at its height and take it from there. For example, suppose we have a village under some sort of threat, and the village is divided about how to address the threat. Let’s imagine that the danger is seasonal flooding, which seems to get worse every year. The villagers, some unwillingly, have raised their houses and public buildings on stilts. We start with a flood. Alas, the stilts aren’t strong enough, and several houses are swept away, including the home of Skye, our MC. In the disaster her father, Quinn, is killed.

That’s a fine way when it works. We tear into the problem and then we present the difficulties with solving it, revealing character and setting as we go. In my historical novel, Dave at Night, I begin with the death of Dave’s father and plunge the story into the central problem right away.

I tried this with Two Princesses, too, less successfully. In one of my attempts to get the beginning right, I introduced Meryl’s illness immediately. As soon as the book opens, she gets sick. It was a powerful start–too powerful, because the reader couldn’t focus on all the other things I needed to set up: Addie’s timidity, monsters, and the epic poem that features Drualt.

In Dave at Night and my example of Skye and her dear departed dad, the beginning may succeed because these beloved characters are dead and done with, and the story can move on. But suppose Skye’s father doesn’t die. Suppose he’s last seen clinging to a ceiling beam in a rushing river. The reader may be unable to pay attention to anything else because she’s so worried about him, and yet we need to set up the rest of the story.

So instead we start with something not quite so intense but that introduces elements of the conflict to come. In Skye’s story, we might start with a town meeting where Quinn argues loudly against raising the houses and in favor of a system of dams to control the water. Meanwhile, Skye wishes her father weren’t so confrontational. Then we move into the work to raise the house, which Quinn does with all the skill at his command. He disagrees with the town’s decision, but he’s going to do his best. We show the relationship between him and Skye and anyone else we decide to put in the family. Maybe we show that Skye is her dad’s opposite. She’d rather not get what she wants than argue. Since, in my mind, the village is kind of a character in the story, we introduce a few of the residents: the mayor, Skye’s best friend, the horse doctor, the owner of the inn. We produce weather reports. We don’t send in the flood until at least a few scenes take place and establish this world and its inhabitants.

Specifically, our beginning can be presented just about any way: through dialogue, action, thoughts, emotion, more than one. Setting is harder, but that can work too. In this story, which has to do with the natural world, setting may be just the thing. We may want to start with rising water. Or with how beautifully the village has recovered, finally, from the last flood twenty years ago.

And, of course, we can change our mind. We can start with a few lines of dialogue and then decide that the dialogue should come later or isn’t needed at all.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write Skye’s story beginning with Quinn’s death in the flood.

∙ Write Skye’s story beginning with Quinn being borne away by the rushing water. See if you can make it work.

∙ Write Skye’s story beginning, as I suggested, with the village meeting.

∙ Start the story several ways and just write a few paragraphs. Start with dialogue, then with setting, then with action, then with thoughts, then with emotion. Keep writing from the beginning that interests you the most.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The beginning of the beginning

On January 2, 2013, Kathryn Briggs wrote, I was wondering if you could write a post on actually ‘starting’, about what you do as soon as you get an idea, then when you write notes, what notes you write, and how you start off writing with out hitting a big brick wall that stretches for ever.

Starting backwards with the brick wall, the problem may be a matter of perspective. I never expect smooth sailing. I do expect to mess up, find my way, meander, get lost, discover a new path until, eventually, I figure the whole thing out. If you don’t march into the wall but walk next to it, it may become a guide, like the guard rail or the shoulder on a highway (freeway, interstate, whatever); it may loop and curve and turn corners and take you where you need to go. Or there may be a gate. I would make friends with that wall. Examine it. Decide whether it’s made of bricks or stone or wood or chain link. Decorate it. If it’s brick, paint it. If it’s stone, stick messages or pretty things in the chinks. If it’s chain link, weave flowers through the links.

Right now I’m just starting to think about my next book, although I’m a long way from finishing the revision of Stolen Magic. I’m talking about it because Kathryn Briggs asked about getting started, and this is the earliest phase. I’m considering – although I may abandon the idea – of writing a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre. If you remember the legend of Drualt, the Bamarrians had to leave their former home, which was “ravaged.” My ancestors had to leave Spain in 1492 because they were Jews, although Spain wasn’t ravaged (I don’t know how I’ll handle that), and I’d like to incorporate some of the history. So I’ve been reading up on the subject, looking for facts that intrigue me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

• Before the expulsion, some Jews converted to Christianity, under violent pressure, but many of these “conversos” remained in their Jewish surroundings and were accused of secret “Judaizing,” keeping up their former worship and traditions. This would stop, or so the reasoning went, if the Jews were removed.

• The Inquisition, which began before the expulsion and lasted long after, had nothing to do with Jews who weren’t pretending to be anything else. It tried conversos for Judaizing.

• In preparing to leave Spain, young Jewish girls, maybe even younger than teenage, but I’m not sure, were married off for their protection during the journey. This, in particular, has possibilities for fiction.

This is a passive stage. I’m collecting information and ideas. I am not – this is important! – forcing anything. The data and my thoughts are sitting in the back of my mind collecting mold and, I hope, fermenting, growing tentacles, connecting to each other. When I enter a more active phase, they’ll be waiting.

Here are my very first notes for Stolen Magic. None of these ideas – zero! – are in the story I’m working on now. My original idea was to write a sequel to the fairy tale “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin. It helps to know the story, so you might want to look it up. MM stands for Masteress Meenore and L stands for Elodie, because the book is a sequel to A Tale of Two Castles. I hope you can figure out my other abbreviations.

spose t youngest bro, Gluck, has always bn troubled by his bros as black stones.  Hires MM and L to turn them back into his bros.  Gluck cd b old by now.  He has no one to leave valley to.  This doesn’t seem so deductive now.  Maybe Gluck has been too generous.  He nds bros to hold him back, but they’re so evil.  Gluck has persuaded himself they’re not so bad.


Spose there have been groanings heard from t stones.  Spose G believes t bros have repented.  Spose tides have turned.  T river isn’t flowing.  T winds have returned and are wreaking havoc.  T river not flowing cd b bec someone has dammed it.  Too simple.


What if there’s a romantic feeling to t story?  Bronteish, so that nature reflects t feelings.  Is this me thinking, oh people will think this is great, not I think it’s great?


People believe they’re groaning.


Gluck wants them restored.  Mm says a fairy cd do it, but how wd she b persuaded to?  If there’s a king of t river, he cd do it, but how cd he b found and persuaded to?  Why does Gluck want this?  Is he somehow being threatened?  Was he not so great to begin w?


Gluck is demented in old age.  Leaves valley to his bros.  King or count or whoever wants to take it.  Two men show up, say they’re t bros.  MM & L are hired to find out truth, whether these are bros, who they are.  How wd they prove this?

Looking at this, it all seems very interesting and I no longer remember why I didn’t go this way.

My first beginning isn’t worth sharing, because it only introduces the characters in the first book. One of the problems with this early start is that it took forever for the action to get going. At one point, Elodie reads to the dragon and the ogre long passages from a book about philanthropy and greed. Yawn. I even say in the text, The book would make a cup of tea sleepy.

Here’s a segment from this early version:

I looked up.  A few clouds, a light breeze.  No immediate danger from the weather.  I looked around at the still forest.  A crow cawed.  Dead leaves rustled, likely a wood mouse.


A deep, aching groan.  His lordship reined in his oxen, and IT did the same with ours.


An elm tree crashed down on the count’s cart.


Chapter (I didn’t number them)


“Your Lordship!” I shouted.  I couldn’t see him.  Had he been hit?


“Nesspa?”


Relief flooded through me.  Count Jonty Um’s voice was strong.  Nesspa barked, also sounding strong.


IT grasped my arm.  “Stay, Lodie.  More trees may fall.”  IT backed into the cart then hauled ITself out.


Why would be I be safer here than somewhere else?  IT wasn’t deducing clearly.  I waited a minute or two for a show of obedience, then stepped down.


IT and his lordship stood in the road.  His lordship held Nesspa’s collar.  Both were unharmed.


But the tree had smashed the front of the cart.  If the count had pulled the oxen up a moment sooner, he would probably have been killed.  I didn’t think even an ogre’s skull or an ogre’s back could withstand a huge tree.


The elm had come from the left side of the road.


“There may be footprints,” IT warned, advancing into the woods with surprising delicacy, balancing on ITs nails.


His lordship let Nesspa go and rose on tiptoes.  We both placed our feet with care.

None of this is in the current draft. The part you just read comes from the version (of a mystery) in which I forgot to include suspects. Oops!

Going back to the brick wall, when I remembered, after more than 200 pages, that mysteries need suspects, I had to trace my steps back to just about the beginning of the road and find a new branch. But I didn’t regard it as a dead end. I wasn’t precisely cheerful; maybe I was precisely irritated and unhappy, but I bulldozed sideways in a new direction.

Here are three prompts involving walls:

• Write about an attempt by someone (or more than one) other than the prince to get through the hedge that surrounds Sleeping Beauty. Start with a description of the wonders of that impervious hedge and keep going.

• Walls work two ways, obviously. Your MC is desperately reinforcing a wall to keep something out, a flood, a monster, an army of sentient termites, whatever you decide. Tell the story.

• Reread a few of your unfinished beginnings. Pick one of them and write a wall into the plot. See what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fast out of the gate

On May 20, 2012, Jillian wrote, I always like stories that aren’t slow and get going quickly. But now I look back at my story and am thinking, It’s going too quickly. I have had my friends read it and they understand the beginning completely. I even have backstory in there but it’s just very quick. Is there such a thing as too quick a beginning?

I wasn’t sure I understood, so I asked for clarification, and Jillian answered with this: Continuing my last comment, I guess it moves quickly in that I feel like most beginnings have parts where the narrator takes its time in explaining what’s going on. Like in Ella Enchanted in the beginning she talks a lot about her mom to give backstory. But in my story I give backstory, but it’s slipped in here and there, and the events move quickly one after the other, making a very short exposition. Is there such a thing as too short?

Hard to tell. My favorite writing teacher used to say that a story, and this would go for a beginning too, is the right length if it’s as long as it needs to be.

Let’s consider what the beginning is, because that may be part of the confusion. In Ella Enchanted, to take Jillian’s example, is the beginning those first two paragraphs about the fool of a fairy, Lucinda? Or the first few pages, in which the curse of obedience is explained? Or does the beginning continue through the funeral of Ella’s mother?

I’m not a student of story arcs and rising and falling action, although maybe I’d have an easier time if I were. So I’m not sure. If the beginning is just revealing the curse, very few pages are involved. If it includes Ella’s mother’s death, then it’s two chapters.

Maybe it will be more productive to think about what a beginning needs to do. I mean a final beginning, not the beginning that gets us writers into the story, but the beginning after we’ve reached the end of the entire tale and done all the revising.

First of all and most of all, a beginning needs to engage the reader and make her care enough to keep reading. There’s no such thing as too quick for that. I don’t mean that there has to be a crisis on the first page. Some authors are leisurely about drawing the reader in. It’s gradual. But there has to be enough from the start to intrigue. Why are we examining the wallpaper in an ordinary bedroom? What’s going on? That curiosity may be enough.

Everything else pales in comparison with the imperative to make the reader want to read.

A beginning also acquaints the reader with the world of the story, which is different for every book or every series. Two books set in a contemporary suburb, for example, will still be in different worlds. The characters will differ, their families, their friends. One character is home schooled; another attends an enormous high school. One character likes to buy from thrift shops, another favors big box stores. One lives in a condo subdivision, another in an old house that was built by her great-grandfather. And so on. Both may mention the antique clock tower by the train station, where the trains no longer run, but that’s it.

Familiarity with the world may take a while if POV or time period or setting shifts from chapter to chapter. The reader may be four chapters in before she feels completely at home. In the novel I’m reading right now, Adam & Eve by Sena Jeter Naslund (high school and above), all three change. Some sections are told in first-person, others in third. Time and setting move around too. I have to pay attention! But the story is strong enough to keep me interested.

The beginning also introduces the voice of the story, or voices if the POV shifts, and if it does, the beginning will also be prolonged.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach, consistency or variation. The same voice, same time period, same narrator all the way through are absolutely fine. They’re just likely to shorten the beginning.

Some stories require more set-up than others. If there are aspects of the world that the reader needs to know going in, we’re going to have to spend more time getting started, which is neither virtue nor vice, only a little harder, because while we’re doing the set-up we still have to engage the reader.

We can make the reader care about main character Kira right on the first page. She rescues a puppy then gets hit by a bus and then says something endearing to the EMT who’s loading her on a stretcher.

But we don’t have to. We can lead with the wallpaper. There’s a spot where it’s torn, and the tear is in the shape of a crescent moon. The surface of the dresser is dusty, and in the dust someone has drawn a five-pointed star. The area rug has a pattern of suns. So far the reader has seen only setting, but she’s curious. Why all the celestial symbols?

The thing that would make a beginning feel rushed to me is an absence of detail. If we start with the rescued puppy, the reader will want to know the circumstances. Is the puppy being abused? Or is it alone in a cardboard box on the street? Did whoever left it also leave a few dog biscuits and a toy? How cute or un-cute is the puppy? And then there’s Kira. Does she love dogs? Is she afraid of them? Allergic? Does she have time to pick up the puppy, or is she making herself late for an interview for the internship she’s wanted for five years?

In the wallpaper example, I’ve given a few details but the reader will certainly want to know if anyone is in the house. And what’s the smell? Is there silence? Is the electricity working, the water running?

Without detail the reader can’t enter the story.

Let’s try some prompts.

∙ Now I’m curious. Write the beginning of the puppy story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Write the beginning of the wallpaper story. What is going on in that house? Delay the entry of characters for as long as you can while still maintaining the reader’s interest. Continue and make it a story.

∙ In a new version, combine the puppy story and the wallpaper story. Switch settings and POVs and time frames. The EMT, the puppy, the rescuer can all have their own chapter. The house with the wallpaper can come much earlier or much later.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Off we go

On May 9, 2012, Kelly wrote, I was curious to see if you had any ideas on what to do when you don’t know where to start when you begin writing. I have a great plot, and do-able characters–but I can’t decide where I should start. Anybody have any ideas?

I usually find my beginning in notes. As I’m jotting down ideas for how my story might go, a first scene drops into my head, so I start writing. This first scene may not ultimately be the first scene by the time I reach the end, and it may change again as I revise, but it’s enough to get me going…

which is all we need. The beginning we begin with is no more precious than any words that come later. It needs only to move us further into the story. If we give it too much importance we’re likely to freeze up and never get beyond a few paragraphs written and rewritten until we want to snap our pens in two or pour molasses on our keyboards.

The famous advice, to begin in medias res, in the middle of things, is one way to go. Suppose your plot involves Julie’s quest to establish her independence, a need she doesn’t recognize at the outset. She tends to rely on other people and rarely asserts herself. We can start with action: Julie is doing something foolish on a dare that a more self-possessed character would have refused to take on.

But that’s only one option. We can begin with setting. Say Julie lives in a model housing development for a repressed minority group in the totalitarian kingdom of Ambur. We might start with a guided tour for the free press of the nation’s democratic neighbor, the republic of Guma. If we see Julie at all, she’s merely one in a chorus of teenagers brought out to sing a paean to tyrannical King Stanil. This beginning focuses on setting. We show the small, neat houses where the grass is always kept three inches long; the box-like school with its tiny, barred windows; the community vegetable garden, where space is not allowed for flowers. And because we want to introduce a little blip of tension, we have a rock-and-roll song (considered degenerate by the king) waft out of an upstairs window, which causes the tour guide to take out her notebook and jot down the address of the offending house. (Later we can learn that the house belongs to Julie’s family.)

Or we can take on an explication of the era with a page or several pages from a history book about the reign of King Stanil the Terrible. The excerpt may include the housing complex,.

Or we can start with character. Julie is in the bedroom of her friend, who’s showing off her new leggings in a pattern of tiny mice and rats. Julie’s real reaction is Yuck!, but she expresses only admiration.

Of course there are many ways to begin with character. When we started with action before, with the dare, we were also revealing character. Thoughts are another option for a character start. Julie is trying to fall asleep, but she’s worrying about a dispute between two of her friends and planning how she can position herself so that each one feels her support and both continue to like her.

If we don’t want to go the thoughts route, we can put this rumination in her diary and open with that. In this case, Julie doesn’t have to be the POV character. The next chapter can show our POV character, Mel, reading the diary. Or the next chapter can be Mel’s diary.

If beginnings make you choke up, you can jump right into a scene further along and write the beginning later. When you’ve gotten going you’re likely to discover scenes that come before the one you’ve written. At that point you may know exactly what’s needed, and your beginning may sail right out.

Let’s imagine that Julie discovers that her neighbor Mel is an informant for King Stanil. We write the scene, imagining the circumstances, but we realize the emotional impact on the reader is blunted because the relationship between Julie and Mel hasn’t been shown. So we write an earlier scene between Julie and Mel. Maybe we show Mel being kind to Julie and Julie being a little afraid of him. Now we’re wondering what Julie’s going to do later about the informing and we decide we need a scene that will shed light on her thought process. In this scene, which also takes place before the informing has been revealed, Julie asks her older sister if she ever finds Mel scary. Her sister says, “Mel has been nothing but good to this family. If he could hear you he’d be so disappointed. We’d be shamed, all of us.” When Julie discovers Mel’s perfidy she’s going to have to take her family’s obligation to him into account. Maybe she’ll even decide she should spy along with him.

Taking another tack, it’s possible that the problem in entering a story that has a fine plot may be blurriness about the characters who will put it into action. Suppose we know there’s a despotic monarch and a network of domestic spies and a downtrodden population who will rebel led by a young girl, but we don’t know who the girl will be. We haven’t imagined Julie yet or given her her personal struggle to act independently. We’re certain we need a leader of the spies but we haven’t imagined him either. And every despot is despot in a different way, but we haven’t fleshed out King Stanil.

Once we figure out our cast of characters we can think about how they might rub against each other. We can imagine King Stanil in his royal chamber with his chief counselor while his barber cuts his hair. How does he behave? We can show Mel walking through the housing complex, taking mental notes. We can have Julie’s mother set her a task and watch the way she carries it out. From this, from thinking about who else we may need, we can start writing.

These prompts come from Julie and the kingdom of Ambur:

∙ Write the scene between King Stanil, his barber, and his counselor. Consider not only Stanil but the others too, and how they may figure in the coming drama.

∙ Put Julie in the middle of the quarrel between her two friends. Write the scene and make both of them get mad at her. Use this as the beginning of a story.

∙ Write Julie carrying out the foolish dare. Get her into trouble. Write the story that follows.

∙ Write the scene in the model housing development. Have King Stanil come along in his armored vehicle and motorcade of security guards.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Foggy first page

On March 31, 2011, Jill wrote, How confused do you think readers are willing to be in the very beginning of a story? Most of the time the reason I quit on a book is because I can only handle so much confusion on the first page. I like to be ambiguous in my stories to keep readers interested but I am afraid to do that at the beginning. Any thoughts?

Tastes differ. I’m with you, though. I’m daunted if I have to contend with too much on the first page. I’ll probably hang in a while unless the grammar is bad. If it is, I’m out. And if the confusion doesn’t clear up by the second chapter, I’m done – unless something in the incomprehensibility has charmed me.

Recently I began The Good Son by Craig Nova, definitely a serious novel for adults. I don’t read much literary fiction and the jacket copy got me worried that I’d be in over my head. But the beginning of the book was so welcoming that I jumped right in. Here’s the first sentence: My father is a coarse, charming man, a lawyer, and a good one, and when I was flying over the desert and the German pursuit pilot began pouring round after round into my plane (a P-40), I was thinking of how I learned to drive, and how it affected my father.

What an achievement this sentence is! Three topics are introduced and I want to know about all of them: the father, the war, and the driving. I’m not far into the book, but the learning-to-drive incident does not disappoint.

Some readers are perfectly content not to understand immediately. Some like the challenge and don’t want anything straightforward. When such readers are also writers, they’re likely to write prose of the sort they like to read.

This is fine. Fortunately, nothing is for everybody. It’s a losing proposition to try to write a book that no one will fail to love. You’re doomed to frustration.

However, some books succeed with millions of readers, and some of these are great books, Pride and Prejudice, for example. Some bestsellers may not be beautifully written or the characters well developed, but the theme is universal or the subject fascinating.

If events are very exciting at the beginning of a story, I’ll probably stick around. For instance, I’d keep reading beyond this: Marisette gizoxed down the previo at zyonga speed. If the ashymi didn’t boosheg, she’d find herself and her precious kizage in the boiling svik and all would be owped.

I’d understand that Marisette was in trouble and I’d want to know what the precious kizage and the hot svik were and why I should care. But if the crazy words went on much longer without an explanation in standard English, I’d give up.

Jill, I’m not sure what you mean by ambiguous in your question. If you mean you like to misdirect your reader for a purpose, I’m all for it. Suppose a drapery tie is the murder weapon in a mystery and you’re describing the living room where the drapery tie stays when it’s not strangling anyone. The victim, a high school student named Hope, is only a missing person at this point, but she’s beginning to be presumed dead. Detective Rosalie Swift has been talking to Hope’s teachers, and right now she’s in the living room of Algebra teacher Max Kilcannon, who will turn out to be the murderer. It’s the detective’s curse, Rosalie thought, to look for murder weapons everywhere. She scanned the room, a fuddy-duddy place, she thought – over-stuffed chairs, the couch with cloth protectors at the ends of the arms, side tables in dark wood, a coffee-table book on the coffee table, still lifes of flowers hanging on the walls in ornate frames, heavy green drapes tied back with cream-colored, ties, and a gas fireplace. Why a poker for a gas fire? How pretentious! The poker could be the weapon, except that a poker appeared in so many detective stories that no self-respecting murderer would use one. The coffee-table book, too, could bludgeon someone to death. The good teacher would also have his pick of cushions to suffocate poor Hope with. Or he could just leave her alone in here for a few hours and she’d die of boredom.

There. The drapery ties are shown, but they’re buried in the rest of the description. When the murder weapon is revealed, the reader can page back to this spot and find it.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I used specters more than once to misdirect the reader, and what fun that was!

But in Two Princesses and in the example above, the writing is clear, nothing ambiguous about it. Clarity is a sine qua non (an essential condition) of good storytelling. We don’t want to throw mud in the reader’s eyes. If you’re worried about catching the reader’s interest from the outset, go with action. Excellent beginnings can open many ways, but action is the most direct, the glucose of storytelling.

Here are some misdirecting prompts:

∙    Hope is in Jim Kilcannon’s living room. Her parents have hired him to tutor her to get her grade up. In this version he may or may not be the murderer; you, the author, haven’t decided yet. Write a scene in which you make Hope and the reader alternately creeped out and reassured by Kilcannon .

∙    On her way home from her first tutoring session, Hope passes a psychic’s shop and goes in. Being behind in Algebra isn’t her only problem. Write the scene with the psychic and mislead the reader about the source of Hope’s danger.

∙    Hope is now a baronet’s daughter in the Kingdom of Kestor. She’s been warned that her life is at risk, and has been invited to tea at the palace of the king’s youngest brother. She has reason to suspect that one of the other guests intends to kill her. Write the tea and make the reader suspect several guests.

Have fun and save what you write!

Curtain up!

First of all, big news: my very first ever published poems for adults have just come out in the fall issue (#68) of The Louisville Review, two whole entire poems. I’ve never had any interest in writing fiction for adults, but poetry is another matter.

By the way, The Louisville Review has a “Children’s Corner” for poetry by kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Follow this link for submissions information: http://www.spalding.edu/louisvillereview/submission.htm#cc.

And a reminder that I’ll be signing on Friday in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Details on the website.

Now here we go!

On July 7, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote, I’ve heard that the first five pages are the most important in a story, since that’s the part agents/editors/readers see first. But, of course, that’s the part I seem to be having trouble with. I’ve rewritten my beginning once already, and I think I’m going to have to do it again. My beginning just doesn’t seem engaging enough, and I can’t think of a good alternative. I need to introduce the setting, characters, and just enough back-story to leave the reader intrigued – but I can’t figure out the best way to do it. My writing is fine later on into Chapter 1, but the first five pages are really giving me a hard time.

Do you have any advice for writing beginnings?

First off, I’m hoping this is an apt post for you NaNoWriMo’s out there who are probably all about beginnings right now. Or maybe your beginning is already three chapter behind you. My hat and every other piece of apparel that can be doffed is off to you.

Regarding those “agents/editors/readers,” if the writing slides downhill on page six rather than page five, that’s where they’ll stop, especially the agents and editors. Besides, I don’t think they’re the ones to worry about. You can’t predict what they’re looking for – is it historical fiction or graphic novels or werewolves? – and if the person who picks up your manuscript is feeling grouchy or rushed or any other of a thousand things, you may be a modern Jane Austen and he’ll still send you one of those horrible form rejection letters.

But of course you’re right about needing to grab the reader fast. Some of you – probably many of you, since you’re book lovers – are forgiving readers. You give a book a chance to hook you. You may stick it out for twenty pages, fifty pages. I suspect some of you never abandon a book. Don’t write your beginnings for readers like you. Write them for reluctant readers who have to be persuaded to hang in.

I included two chapters on the subject of beginnings in Writing Magic, which you may also want to look at.

My worst beginnings nightmare was in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I needed to start the story and also to introduce an epic poem that runs through the book, but the epic poem has a different story line from the main one. I rewrote the beginning umpteen times. It took me so long to figure out that the book went into bound galleys with a messed-up beginning, which hurt it in reviews.

I just compared the two beginnings. In the bound galleys, I started with a fragment of the poem and gave a little of the poem’s back story before moving into the tale of the novel. In the published edition I also began with the poem but then started the primary tale immediately. The difference is just a few deleted sentences, yet one version is smooth, the other bumpy. And although the change was slight, it took me weeks and quite a few intermediate attempts to get there.

So here are two beginnings suggestions. The first is to trim down to the essentials. Be ruthless with every word, phrase, and sentence.

The second suggestion is to delay the back story. Involve the reader in the front story first. Depending on what you’re writing you may need to introduce the back story quickly, maybe in the first page even, but not in the first couple of paragraphs.

This is formulaic, and if you find another way that works, certainly go for it. But in general, at the beginning, if you can, do only one thing. Think of a hypnotist (which is what an author is, in a way). She’s wagging the watch on its chain in front of her subject’s eyes, a single watch, never more than one or the trance won’t take hold.

The easiest element to start with is probably action. If you throw your characters right into a rush of events, your reader is likely to dive in too. For example, suppose you begin, He shuffled toward me. The reader will instantly want to know who he is and who me is and what the shuffling means – not that you have to explain right away.

But you can start with any facet of storytelling: setting, dialogue, thoughts, feelings, action. This suggests a prompt. (If you’re in NaNoWriMo, don’t try it right now. Wait till December.) The prompt comes from a similar prompt in a book I’ve mentioned before, What If (middle school and above), which is full of writing exercises. Write beginnings that feature each of the elements I just listed, a different beginning for each. For example, a setting beginning might start, How bland the house looked with its tan siding, white shutters, worn welcome mat. How little it gave away.

When you do this, don’t concern yourself with the story that might follow. You’re only exploring beginnings, and you’ll be most free to do that if you don’t have to think ahead.

In my example it’s the second sentence that gets the reader interested. If I’d omitted that and continued on to other bland house attributes, the reader might wonder if he’d wandered into a real estate listing. But if I went on to describe the cheery kitchen and remarked that all evidence had been erased of the day when big sister Barbara added talcum powder to the cake batter, the reader would likely sit down at the table ready to be dished more story.

So the third suggestion is to give the reader a tidbit to worry about. Maybe worry is too strong. Engage may be a better word. In Writing Magic I propose that the reader look at the beginnings of her favorite books, and I propose it again. See how quickly you were grabbed. Examine how the author did it.

At one point in flailing about for a beginning to Two Princesses, I jumped in too deep right away. I don’t want to give the story away, but I began the major crisis on the first page. The reader was too seized, too anxious to endure any of the regular stuff of establishing characters, setting, the world of the story. There are additional dangers in launching at the most critical moment: either everything that follows feels like a let-down or the story has to be cranked up to hysterical heights, and too much hysteria leads to sameness and emotion fatigue. So the fourth suggestion is to start small.

It’s nice when you can make the initial predicament be the same sort of trouble that propels the entire book. If your main character’s major problem, for example, is not fitting in, you might start with an instance of his outsider status. Other kinds of trouble can come along later, but it’s cool, in my opinion, to set out with the underlying issue. Not always possible, but cool.

Sometimes the perfect beginning comes to me right off. It did in Ella Enchanted and The Wish, and that was a gift. Usually I have to revise to get it right, which may not occur in my second draft or, as was true for Two Princesses, my twentieth. And you can’t be absolutely certain of your beginning until the first draft is finished – because you may not know what your beginning needs to do or be until you get to the end.

Here’s another prompt: Think of a story you know well, maybe a fairy tale or a myth, but not a book whose written beginning is lodged in your memory. Or you can think of a well-known character, like Sherlock Holmes, or even a historic figure, like Houdini, whom you can fictionalize. Write three beginnings to go with the tale or the character. For example, you might choose “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Write at least two pages for each one. If you like, pick one and keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!