Friday, April 27, 2012

A Strong Start

Writers spend a lot of time worrying about their first page. You want to draw the reader in immediately, but unless the book is a sequel, the reader is starting with nothing. An opening has to introduce the main character, establish the setting, and capture the author’s/ character’s voice. Ideally, it will clarify the genre and give the reader an idea of what to expect from the rest of the book. That’s a lot to get into a page or two.

In an unpublished fantasy novel, I realized during revisions that I didn’t have any fantasy elements in the first 20 pages, which would mislead the reader into thinking this was straight historical fiction. I changed to this opening:

Anise knew the candy must be enchanted. The genie cook always put some kind of protection on the food, so no one could eat it until he said so. Would it stick her jaws together so she couldn’t speak? Turn her lips and tongue blue? Taste like camel dung?

It’s definitely fantasy now, and it also hints at the Middle Eastern setting. 

In The Well of Sacrifice, I think I started too slow, with too many details of setting and culture before we got to a problem happening now. You want to start in a moment of action, where something is changing, and cut the background. The book is still in print after 12 years, so I guess the start didn’t bother people too much, but if I revised it now I’d try for more early action.

On the other hand, don’t rush things—take a little time to set up the situation, so it makes sense and we care about the characters, and what’s happening to them. Sometimes writers worry too much about flashy writing, and they come up with openings that are confusing or misleading. The first chapter tells you what to expect from the rest of the book, whether it’s humor, action, tragedy or whatever. You don’t just need a good hook—you need the best hook for this novel, a hook that will attract those readers who will most enjoy the book. A clever, funny hook is great—but only if the rest of the book is also clever and funny.

Don’t worry about the beginning during the first draft. Chances are it will change completely anyway. Wait until you have a solid plot before you start fine-tuning your opening and ending. Many authors write a novel, then throw away the first chapter and write a new first chapter—the one that belongs there. It seems like it’s almost impossible to write a strong opening until you’ve finished the rest of the book.

You can test both your opening and your ending by seeing how much you can cut. What if you delete the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page? Does the story still make sense? Does it get off to a faster start? What if you cut the whole first chapter, or several chapters? If you can’t cut, can you condense?

On the other hand, if your beginning feels confusing or rushed, you might want to try starting earlier in the story. Try setting up a small problem that grabs the reader’s attention, luring them in until you can get to the main problem. In The Well of Sacrifice, the Maya are dealing with famine, disease and marauders in the early chapters, even before the king dies and an evil high priest tries to take over. That gives readers time to understand these characters and their world.

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