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:

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!