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!