Tuesday, 12 January 2010

WHERE DOES A STORY BEGIN??


Even blog posts have to start in the right place. There! I started! We often angst about where exactly to start when writing a novel. We're right to angst about it because if we don't start the right way, we risk losing readers before we've got going. On the other hand, we're wrong to angst about it.

Why are we wrong to angst about starting points for novels?
  • because you can change it later - just get started and see what happens. Changing the beginning later is one of the easiest aspects of a revision, but you need to get the beginning down now, even if you end up moving it.
  • because the hard and fast rules are not very hard or fast. The essential one is: do what works for THIS book.
  • because starting points are about to be a lot easier to think about, as I'm about to give you some guidelines. Hooray! And then some options and examples. Even more hoorayish.
WHAT'S A BEGINNING?
There are beginnings and beginnings: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter, the first 5,000 words. Your first book. All these are beginnings and all are important in their ways. One leads to the other, and if you get one wrong, you may lose your reader. In this sense, the first sentence and paragraph are technically easier and less important than the first chapter / 5,000 words, because most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt if you haven't 100% grabbed them in a few lines.

HOWEVER, I aim to grab readers as early as possible and hold them in a vice-like grip until way after the last sentence of the book. So, for me beginnings simply involve techniques, and are not really more much more important than the rest. I recommend you take the same view.

 So, GUIDELINES. WELL, OK: RULES:
1. Your first chapter (and I tend to prefer my chapters short, especially first ones, but this is NOT a rule) should do the following:
  • give a strong flavour of what sort of book this is. Sinister? Poignant? A thriller? Shocking? Light? Easy? Chicklit? Erotic? Historical?
  • introduce the setting / period / context [showing, not telling it].
  • give tantalising clues about future action.
  • introduce a main (usually the main) character and his / her central flaw or problem.
  • contain elements which make it impossible for the reader not to read on.
2. When writing your first chapter, you must bear in mind:
  • that the reader knows nothing that is in your head. But you must be in your reader's head at all times, especially the beginning, when your reader is ignorant. Your reader wants to be engaged but he could very easily pick up a different book instead if he doesn't understand enough of what you're planning. So, you must give them enough for them to understand what you want them to understand. And not understand what you don't want them to understand.
  • that the reader cares absolutely nothing for your characters. It is up to you to make the reader care. Quickly and powerfully.
  • that the reader does not want lots of explanation, backstory and introduction. The reader wants only to know why he should spend many hours reading this story.
3. Every sentence should work as hard as any other sentence. Therefore, I do not want to say that the first paragraph or first sentence are the most important, because that would imply I take less trouble over subsequent ones. However, you should apply section two above more carefully to the earliest sentences in your WIP.

4. Although writers angst about beginnings, actually they should be angsting about middles. Beginnings are easy compared to middles and more readers are lost in Chapter Two than Chapter One. It's usually not too difficult to use Ch 1 to pose all sorts of intriguing and compelling elements. Trouble is, novice writers often then pack Ch 2 (and the ensuing ones) with interminable back-story and dull explanation. Please bear this in mind: back story needs to be drip-fed, gently, so that we want more, not less. Think of your reader: will he thank you for making him drool with excitement in Ch 1, only to be bored rigid by a history lesson for the next 10,000 pages? Or even three.

5. Consider carefully how much information you give, how many clues you offer. Tell enough but not too much - NEVER tell too much at the beginning. But do tell enough - the reader doesn't want to be confused. There can be a fine line between confused and intrigued.

OPTIONS AND EXAMPLES
I know what you're thinking: all that above stuff is very obvious. What we want to know is WHERE to start the damned story? Like, at the beginning? Or in medias res? Or what?

There is only one place to start your story: the right place for that story. Every story has its best place to start, and you have to find it. For this, you should not be thinking about rules: you should be thinking about story-telling and engaging your reader. I cannot tell you where to start your story. But I can tell you some places I've started mine and why.

[NB: the techniques and rules of novel-writing are identical whether you are writing a novel for a ten-year-old or a ninety-year-old. Books for teenagers and other young readers have some extra rules and conventions, which make them harder, not easier, to write. Therefore, please do not for one second think: she writes novels for teenagers - what does she know about rules and structures? Frankly, I am required to apply rules and structures more rigorously, not less. Adult writers can learn a thing or two from YA / children's writers. OK?] 

THE PRE-START / PROLOGUE
[BTW, I could do a post on prologues but it would be a very short one: essentially, quit worrying about whether your book should have a prologue. If it needs one, have one. Or call it Chapter One if you're worried.]


So, one place to start is an earlier event which informs the whole of the main story. My first historical novel, Fleshmarket, does this. I called it the prologue because it happens six years before the main story. The protagonist is a 14 year old boy who, when he was eight, heard his mother scream during surgery without anaesthetic, and watched her die of blood-poisoning five days later. That scene [surgery + death] is the first chapter and was absolutely the right place to start: it is the beginning of Robbie's story; the whole reason why his life is as it is by the time we get to Chapter 2, when, aged 14, he meets and seeks revenge on the surgeon responsible.

It's also a supremely shocking first chapter. It has been described by many people as the most shocking opening of any book they've read. [It's never put a teenage reader off, btw...] Again, shock is one way to grab your reader, if your readers like to be shocked. It is an honest way to start this book, as it very much gives a flavour of what's to come. You are left in no doubt as to whether or not you want to read on. I chose to take the risk of alienation, because I judged that enough people would be drawn in. As it happens, I was right and Fleshmarket has become my most read book.

THE FLASHFORWARD

I have done this twice. My latest novel, Deathwatch, is about a stalker following a girl, for reasons which you don't know till much later. The opening chapter is a flashforward from the main action, to a month ahead. As Deathwatch is a crime thriller, and its essence is not shock but sinister suspense, this device allows me to weave clues and hints, and then for the reader to know more than the protagonist [the victim]. Twice more during the book we go to the flashforward time, with the main action catching up.

I used the same device in The Passionflower Massacre, my favourite of my novels, btw, should you wish to honour me with a purchase. The first chapter is set 25 years ahead of the main action. An old woman is visiting a man in prison, where he has been serving a life sentence for mass murder and is about to be released. Various clues and questions are introduced: who is the woman? Who is the man? What is each planning? [They both clearly have secret motivations.] What will happen when he is released in three weeks' time? Chapter 2 goes back to the main action. The prison scene is then repeated, each time with the man one week nearer release, until his actual release day...

Both these books also use a sinister, rather than shocking, start. They raise questions, set tone / mood / voice / atmosphere. They tell enough but not too much.

THE END START
In a sense, The Passionflower Massacre starts at, or at least near, the end. Actually, there's quite a bit more important action after we catch up with the 25 year headstart. Starting at the end might seem odd, even foolish. It certainly needs careful handling, but it's often a useful place to start, as long as you don't mess around with your reader. Readers hate to be messed around with. [Actually, do mess around with them: just don't let them feel messed around with...]

But a much more obvious and paradigmatic end start is my opening for Chicken Friend. Chicken Friend is my one book for 8-10 year-olds, and my one "light" one, although there's a lot of suspense and stuff to worry about for the reader; one of my blog-readers, the "anonymous" Proe, an adult thriller writer whose opinion I obviously respect, was kind enough in a recent comment to praise its mastery of thriller techniques.

Here's how CF starts:
"I suppose they're saying I  messed up. Yes, well, I'd like to see you cope any better with a family like mine. I was only doing my best. But when you have a family straight out of Crazyville, "best" doesn't actually make much difference. Like trying to clean up a litre of milk with a cotton bud.
     Personally, I blame them. The crazy family.
     Right now, I'm sitting in the chicken shed on my own. Apart from the chickens. It's a good place to sit and think and try to work out where it all went wrong. And wait. Chickens don't judge. But they are good listeners."

So, what do we learn? [We know "I" is a girl from the cover and the blurb. Note to Jo after comment below the post: we will learn in the next para that her name is Becca!] Something bad has happened, but she is also waiting for something / some news. She's annoyed by her family. Whatever has happened may or may not have been her fault, but people are blaming her, which is very frustrating for anyone, and especially for children because their voices are not heard. She seems like a friendly character, misunderstood but well-meaning: the fact that she goes to the chickens for comfort and peace is endearing. So, we want to know more about her, we want to identify with her, we want to know what has happened and what she is waiting for. The tone / voice is direct, fresh and young. There is an element of light humour, at least a wry smile - chickens being good listeners is not something that a swearing, angry, nasty person would think. This does not feel like a story that a parent should worry about their child reading.

It is, at least, enough to set the scene and make the reader want to know more. But, it's near the end of the story. Very near the end of the story. And she's going to tell the whole story now. So, the reader knows that she doesn't die. The chickens don't die. The chicken shed does not catch fire. So, by starting at the end, you automatically remove SOME elements of surprise.

This won't matter, because Chicken Friend has lots, lots more to hook you with. And that, really is the point: writing is not about hooking the reader at the beginning. It's about hooking the reader and keeping her hooked for every single sentence.

And that's why you shouldn't angst too much about beginnings.

THE NORMAL START
All the above are somewhat fancy, somewhat technical, as though there has to be some great decision about where to start. There doesn't. If it's obvious that the story should just start at the beginning, just start it at the beginning.

Both my highwayman books do this. The Highwayman's Footsteps gets stuck in with this opening paragraph:
I felt cold metal on the side of my skull before I heard the voice. I knew at once what it was. A pistol. Resting on the bone just behind my ear. The favourite place for murderers, robbers, highwaymen - because, by angling the pistol slightly inwards they could be sure to blow a man's brains out before he might have time to scream.
Can't get much clearer than that: in medias flipping res, or what?


And, as for the sequel, The Highwayman's Curse, here's the first para:
The man was dead. Of this there could be no doubt. No one could survive such a terrible injury.
So, few words, raising so many questions: who is the man? Who is looking at him? What is the terrible injury? Please may we see it?? Was this accident or murder? If murder, where is the murderer? And you even get a flavour that it's historical, without labouring of historical language [which I'm tackling in a post soon] - the second sentence very subtly nails this, by using a form of words that doesn't quite ring true for 21st century prose, yet is not jarringly archaic.

None of these beginnings is any better than the other. Each is simply exactly right for the story that follows.

So, try not to angst about your beginning. Yes, it's important, very important. But so is the middle. And as for the end, well, that must be the subject of another post entirely!

44 comments:

dirtywhitecandy said...

Exhaustive and thought-provoking. I especially like your reminder about not letting it all sag in Chapters 2, 3, 4, ....

Sophie Playle said...

Great stuff. I am just about to begin my very first attempt at a novel, so this was nicely timed! I've re-tweeted to my Twitter followers.

Catherine Hughes said...

I'm going for the dramatic start this time, having messed about with prologues that I was told didn't really work in the last attempt. So my character finds herself foiling a robbery with the help of her special powers, right in the very first chapter.

Knowing where to begin really scuppered me last time. This time, it's come much more naturally. I have two more first chapters that I wrote out just to get the ideas flowing for those two stories, and they don't seem to be problematic either, although one does have a death-scene prologue, too.

For yet another idea (the one that is my grant application) I have toyed around with a prologue that starts at the beginning, but I found it very tricky. I may have to write it at the end of the novel even though it will form the beginning. We shall see.

So I am finding that practise makes perfect. When I get an idea, even if I know I don't want to run with it just yet, I wirte a first chapter. I used to fret over them; now I don't.

Cat x

Catherine Hughes said...

I meant - a prologue that starts at the end!

Ignore me, I am half asleep today!

Leela Soma said...

This is so helpful for new writers like me. I'm in the edit bit of novel two and a lot of angst about the structure. Dramatic beginning with flasbacks or a linear one. This blog is brilliant as it shows how each has its merits.Thanks.

Jo Franklin said...

Thanks for starting at beginnings which is really pertinent with me at the moment.

I'm toying with the idea of a brief prologue set as a newspaper story about an apocalyptic event that happened 10 years before the main action.
The book proper starts with the main character and her mum leaving a city which has suffered because of the apocalypse. I was hoping that would alleviate my terrible habit of cramming in far too much backstory! I figured once the premise is stated in the prologue, I can get on with the story.

One thing though Nicola, you say that in Chicken friend, you rely on the colour of the cover and the blurb to tell the author that the mc is a girl. Hang on - us unpublished have got to tell the agent/publisher about all that stuff in the story. We can't say 'It needs to be a pink cover coz I can't spare the words'.

So that means in the opening we hav to introduce the character, their mission and get the reader to like them, give a sense of historical and physical setting and the general tenor of the book without lashings of backstory. So it's no wonder that people anguish over it especially as its only the first chapter that agents/publishers will read.

But I totally agree that shouldn't stop you putting pen to paper in the first place. Get on with the story and worry about the opening para once you've got 40,000 words under your belt - that's my advice.

Really looking forward to 2010 with your advice ringing in my ears daily.

fairyhedgehog said...

I love the beginning to Transition by Iain Banks:
Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you're told you deserve whatever you get.

It's like you said about readers not liking to be messed around with, or rather not liking to feel that they're being messed around with. Banks sets it up so you know he's going to be messing around with you in some way and you're ready for it.

And he keeps up the pace throughout.

Glynis said...

Thanks for the information, I learn so much when I read your blog.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - actually, we learn in the next para that her name is Becca! I've added that to the post, to clarify. So, you see, I am still using my beginning to pack all the necessary info in.

Alos, Jo [I'm not picking on you, honest - you make perfectly valid points!!] you say: "So that means in the opening we hav to introduce the character, their mission and get the reader to like them, give a sense of historical and physical setting and the general tenor of the book without lashings of backstory. So it's no wonder that people anguish over it especially as its only the first chapter that agents/publishers will read." But I'd say that's all about the desire to grip your reader - it's not difficult. It only seems difficult if you try to break it down. If you're a good story-teller you'll be doing it anyway.

You say "Get on with the story and worry about the opening para once you've got 40,000 words under your belt - that's my advice." YES! [At least if it doesn't come to you earlier...]

Fairyhedgehog - oh yes, that's exactly what Banks is doing. And there's someone who knows exactly about how to dangle the reader so that they won't let go.

Thanks, all, for reading so carefully and for your comments. Catherine - indeed, practice does make it sooo much easier.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - PS: I didn't say "colour of cover" btw! Yes, it IS pink, but a) I wish it wasn't and b) it wasn't the colour I meant, but the content of the cover. Just sayin'. You are quite right that we do not and should not expect the cover to do our work for us as story-tellers.

Scott said...

Great post. I put a link on my blog to send people over here to check it out. Thanks!

Flixton Mum said...

Goodness me, I need to sit down. What an extensive list of things, and then you tell us not to worry about it! Great.

I do angst about middles. I really do, I'm not joking either. I don't eat peas or beans and other pulse things because they've got middles and I've got oodles of unfinished stories because of that middle bit.

I can do the start and I know where it's got to get to at the end, but the middle is a quagmire of loose ends. It's like running a marathon that I've not done any training for.

Writing fiction is so much harder than my previous day job, because the middle doesn't write itself.
I realise I actually have a phobia of middles.

Anna Bowles said...

I read too many (published and generally well-received) books where exquisite care has been taken over the first chapter and the rest then kind of jogs along. In the YA stuff I've been reading recently, introducing your characters then giving them no development, but instead piling more and more weird events/monsters into the plot, seems to be the favourite.

Craft your middles!!!

Ann Elle Altman said...

Good post. These reminders are very helpful. I like your examples.

ann

Marisa Birns said...

Thank you, Nicola, for such comprehensive advice!

Getting the ideas flowing and written down, and then working out where they all fit is so much easier than worrying at the get-go how to start or end.

Don't remember the name of the author, but I read this person say that after her story was finished, she realized that the last page worked better as the first page of the book. And that's what she did!

Thank you for all the goodies you've given us with this post. I'm beginning my first novel and I feel confident(at the moment, anyway) and inspired!

Samantha Tonge said...

Just a nitpicky point here:

I know i am setting myself up to be shot down by you, Nicola (again, ahem:)) but, having worked very hard over the last year or two to stop obsessing about writing rules i have heard about, one sticks:
NEVER START A NOVEL WITH A LINE OF DIALOGUE.

The rational me knows this is ridiculous but i can't quite block out of my mind stories of agents who shudder when they turn to chap One and the first line is speech.

So, please help me...


Great post, btw.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sam - I'm delighted you asked that question, actually. First, I had vaguely heard that unpubbed writers worried about this but I have no idea where it came from. I have never, in all my conversations with dozens/hundreds of novelists, heard anyone say it or discuss it. It would, frankly, be beneath our dignity to make or stick to such a ridiculous rule. rules must have reasons and this has none (except see the end of this comment.)

If you want one single example of why this rule simply cannot be taken seriously, look no further than the first line of one of the most successful AND respected contemporary novels of our time, Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. I could find more but I can't be bothered!

The only conceivable reasons to avoid dialogue as your first sentence are a) that it's difficult to do well and b) that it's difficult to convey enough of the tone etc of the whole story. But that latter reason doesn't really hold, because you're going to go on to do that in the following sentences.

So, definitely a rule to ignore! If dialogue IS the best way to start your story, it is.

Jo said...

Great post. I usually start a new work with a first line and go on from there. Often that remains the beginning of the book although for my current manuscript I ended up writing a prologue which just tied things together neatly. It's the middle where I always get bogged down and have to do some serious outlining and plotting to keep things moving along at a good pace. Sometimes when you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see where things drag, but a time away from it, usually clears things up.
btw, I thought I'd read most of your novels but had not heard of The Passion Flower Massacre and am now agog to read it. I loved Fleshmarket Alley and am glad you wrote it the way you did. Teens can handle quite frightful scenes and images if they're in context.

The Voice said...

I agree with you wholly. Each manuscript I have written has always started wherever it decided to take its first breath. I have learned to just go with the flow. I am totally grateful to copy and past, it makes it so much easier to move paragraphs and sometimes chapters.

My most recent wanted to start at the end so I took note as fast as I could (you know how some characters voices are so persistent you have to get them down)and eventually ended up knowing where the beginning should have been. It was almost like it flipped on me.

Old Kitty said...

Hi Nicola

I'm printing this out as I'm writing this. I like that you condensed key points enough for me to read and digest on the commute home!

There's also an interesting peice about editing in EllenB's blog.

And I'm glad I can start a story with dialogue. I seem to find it easier to do so - it sort of sets the scene for me. but of course I can always change it as I carry on with the story if I find that it no longer works.

Thanks

x

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks, Nicola.

I'll file that worry away then, with the one about agents discarding subs if the first page contains an exclamation mark...

:)

Megs - Scattered Bits said...

I'm so used to just "knowing" where to start my novels that I have angsted much much over the not knowing on the one I'm writing now. This was a lovely, helpful reminder to the Megsmeister to "JUST WRITE!" Thank you. Well said with tips I know I'll come back to when it IS time to choose the right and perfect opening.

And you speak the truth about middles. On revising my previous book (juvenile fiction), I discovered first chapter and last chapter were both pretty good, but there was this huge mess in the beginning of the middle. :sighs: Back to the drawing board...

Rosalind Adam said...

Thanks, Nicola. There's so much to think about in this post from the point of view of a writer but I found myself identifying more passionately with some of your issues from the point of view of a reader.

I agree with you about the Chapter 3 wilt. I have a pile of books by my bookshelf with bookmarks less than a third the way in and there they stay after such a promising start.

I recently read a novel with a prologue that, as far as I could work out, had nothing to do with the story. Very frustrating.

Personally I don't like end-starts. I'll never forget going to see Blood Brothers on stage. It was breathtaking but why did we have to know the end at the beginning?

mindmap1 said...

I'm a lurker! Yes, one of those who pops in to see what you're up to each day; digests your savvy advice and attempts to apply it to her writing. Without leaving so much as a 'hello.' It's disgraceful behaviour and I hang my head in shame!

Re: never start a book with dialogue. I disagree. Let me give you a couple of examples:

"She was back. And Ashling Fitzgerald hadn't changed a bit in eight years, had she?"

"How bad is it, Dad, really? I need to know."

by Trish Wylie an award winning Irish author who writes for Harlequin.

Love the blog Nicola.

Christine

Nicola Morgan said...

Rosalind - just to point out: end-starts do not mean you know the ending. For example, you may know that the protag survived (because they're still talking) but survived WHAT? And how? And who else didn't survive? And what exciting things happened along the way? A skilful writer can keep the suspense going even if (and ideally BECAUSE) the reader knows *something* that's going to happen. My favourite book is The Moth Diaries - you know at the start that the protag's mental health recovers, but FROM WHAT??? It's the most skilful piece of writing of that sort that i know: being able to hold the reader even though the reader knows that it's a "happy" ending. (Though define happy...)

My two end starts, Chicken Friend and the Passionflower Massacre, are tense thrillers partly BECASUE you know something about what is going to happen. Emphasis on the "something". I recommend you read one to see what I mean. Borrow from the library if you don't want to buy!

Nicola Morgan said...

And to clarify what mindmap siad (hello, mindmap, and well unlurked!!) - when she says "I disagree", she means she disagrees with the rule, and agrees with me who also disagreed with the rule!!

Elen Caldecott said...

Great post, Nicola! Couldn't agree more with the 'every sentence is important' idea. The tradition of the second chapter collapse is venerable. In the Iliad, for example, the Catalogue of Ships must be the WORST second chapter EVER.

Arabella said...

This is what makes writing so much fun! I love the freedom of choosing the perfect beginning. My current WIP starts in medias res, but I've tried the pre-start and flash forward in earlier attempts at writing novels. BTW, I chose to read your highway men books first simply because I'm addicted to anything 18th C.

Sarah said...

Elen, I hope I'm not the only one who laughed when they read your Iliad comment. I still remember slogging through that part. And I'd been so captured by the first line: "Sing, o goddess,the anger of Achilles..."

Pardon the geeking-out there.

Nicola, there's so much good stuff in this post and the comments! Your point about starting in a way that absolutely grabbed the reader was so helpful.

I just finished re-re-revising my first chapter. I agree with Jo's advice to worry about the first 40,000 before worrying about the fist chapter. For me, it's easier after I've written the last chapter, because I know all the elements that need to be in your story's beginning. (Boy, I wish I'd known that a year ago. I ended up learning the hard way.)

I did start the chapter with dialog- just one line. But I wasn't even thinking about dialog/no dialog when I did that. It just seemed the best way to enter the story. I have heard agents/editors comment about dialog, too, but it was typically about swaths of dialog that did little to illuminate characters or plot.

Catherine, I'd never heard of 'scupper' before. Yay! A new word for today.

Cammie said...

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about your post. I just saved it to my all-holy Novel Rewrite Notes file. I am struggling terribly with the opening of my novel. I'm pretty confident people will get into it if they can just make it past the muck that is my first chapter. When it comes time for me to re-rewrite it, I am going to pour over your comments in painstaking detail and hopefully some brilliance will emerge! Thanks again ...

Catherine Hughes said...

Sarah...

If you read my writing blog you will see me mention in my first post that I read dictionaries. It's true, I do - or rather, I used to; whilst travelling by bus to school.

Glad to have been of service, hehehe!!

Thomas Taylor said...

My first novel had a very strong opening, but then went all 'backstorytastic' for the next four chapters to make up for it. I learnt my lesson though!

Jemi Fraser said...

Beginnings are hard - but I love the fact that you can change them. When I decided to take a novel I'd written just for me and polish it for the possibility of publishing, I realized the beginning was really, really not where it should be. Had to rewrite the first half of the ms, but it was worth it :)

Terry Odell said...

The first pages I write have yet to make it into one of my novels. I'm getting better, and no longer cut the first 8 chapters, but I've yet to get to the beginning before at least 8 pages.

I have a 'standard' beginning that I keep thinking will make a great story, yet every time I use it, I cut it. I figure it's a running start.

David Griffin said...

Excellent stuff. Not panicking or fretting about the start too much is so right, I think. Just start, is the key; that "springboard" can always be modified/changed at a later date.

for interest, I started both my completed novels with dialogue.

Keeping a rhythm and pace in the middle was - as far as I can remember - the most difficult part for me when writing. Perhaps I'll be reminded of this as I approach the middle of my WIP...

:-)

Debra Harris-Johnson said...

Wondeful post to start the New Year and new novel. Great comments from all. Nicola you've done a great job with hooking me into turning out a 1st chapter. But in seat, typing black on white. I'll say that's a start.

kanishk said...

I've re-tweeted to my Twitter followers.

Work from home India

Rosalind Adam said...

Thanks for the explanation. I do see what you mean about end-starts but I still don't like the way Blood Brothers starts with the ending - a case of individual taste.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cammie - sounds as though you have a very tricky first chapter! just press on and see what transpires later. Good luck!

Flixtonmum - having an extensive list of things to think about and being told then not to worry about them is actually good for you: you need to absorb them till they are part of you, then you won't need to worry about them!

Jo, The Voice, Old Kitty and others - thank you! too many to mention all your comments but thanks for joining in. Not too much disagreement either!

Andrea said...

Great work. Thanks for the beautiful post. You just discussed really a nice thought regarding novel writing. Excellent piece of work.

Harry Markov said...

I started reading this post with questions I wanted answered to sound smart in the comments and you answered them in the past. Grr, Nicola, curse your wisdom.

Anyway, how about the flashback 1st chapters? Have you ever tried to start a novel with a chapter that has paralleling story lines: one in the past and one in the present? I am doing that: police interrogation scene, where the protag is flat out lying and the flashbacks [no better term right now] tell what's really happened. A bit like LOST, but far more straightforward.

What is your opinion on such starts? And yes, after pondering this for a long time it's THE way for the novel to open.

Jean Reidy said...

Very timely post. We're always discussing this in my critique group. Writing the rest of the novel and then coming back to revise the beginning is great advice, because beginnings can be paralyzing.

myliteraryquest said...

Fantastic. This was the kick in the butt I needed after wading in literary darkness for these last few months. I've been slogging through my first manuscript and constantly have to tell myself that I will go back and improve and rewrite until I like it! Writing is a lonely job, I love finding new good resources.

Pelotard said...

By writing a number of short stories, I've found that once you find the proper starting point, writing flows easily. If you start too early, you'll get stuck because you get to a point where nothing much happens for a while. If you start too late, you're having to include flashbacks to what happened before, or infodumping, or some such.

Both of these can be troublesome to spot in your own writing. I had one story where I described the protagonist's efforts to salvage as much as possible from the shipwreck while finding somewhere to survive; since things were actually happening, it took me five re-writes to realise that this had nothing to do with the story. I kept the shipwreck itself - good drama there - then jumped to when she was already safe and snug inside her cave, which was the real starting point.