Saturday, August 27, 2011

To Begin... Or Not to Begin (Joy Preble)

A lot of my esteemed colleagues have written about the glory that is beginnings. How nice it is to mine that new idea, head off into the story.

Well, okay, yeah. Sometimes. Maybe.
I do like beginnings – love that fresh page, that clean slate, the endless, hopeful possibilities for this embryonic story.

But here’s my dirty little secret – beginnings are hard. Often I don’t know where the story begins until I’ve reached the middle or possibly the end of the first draft. I need to tell it in the order in which it comes out – sometimes bullet point outlined, sometimes just riding the wave as it comes, usually a combination of both. I stop and start and pull my hair and drink vats of green tea or coffee or maybe a touch of the Jameson’s if it’s later at night. I get to know my characters. I find out who their friends are. Other characters appear – a doctor at the hospital, a neighbor, a friend I had no idea existed. Sometimes they arrive as devices, sometimes they just arrive unannounced. “Hey,” some new dude tells me. “I’m in this story, too.” I stop again – see what he has to say. Usually it’s something that needs to be said.

And then, when the characters are fleshed out and the story has wound around and I’ve figured out the climax and the turning point and the various beats and how it all works into my general view of the world, I go back to the beginning.

Usually, I begin again. Not the whole novel; I know writers who say they do that – write the whole thing then throw it out. This gives me the willies. But the beginning – that I’ll write again. And maybe three or four more times after that. I may discover that the story actually starts in what is chapter two or three. I cut. I rearrange. In one case, I realized that the wrong character was telling the story. The girl he’s meant to be with is telling it now; I call this book “Luck Number 11.” That’s not the real title. But I’ve redone the beginning so many times and searched for the right way to tell the story that it might as well be. Stuff like that sucks. But when I get it right, I’ll be proud to see it on a shelf.

If I asked you what was the first thing you wanted to have people know about you and your journey, you’d probably pause and think. I have to do that when I’m writing, too.

How about you? Anyone else found a beginning that really wasn’t?


  1. I rework the beginning if I need to, but only after I've finished the first draft of the entire manuscript. What happens later on it the story could influence the beginning, so I don't like to edit as I go.

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  2. Changing and rearranging beginnings is the story of my writing life. I have a meeting with my writing group tomorrow, and I KNOW they're going to tell me to change the beginning of the manuscript I sent them a month ago. When I get home afterward I'll whine to myself, but I'll change it because they were right about the beginnings of my first two books.

  3. The opening sentences in particular are difficult for me. I wouldn't want anyone to put down the story because the first sentences weren't interesting enough for them. Like you, I've written "alternate beginnings" to see which one works best, because that way I can figure out which one I'm most comfortable with.

  4. Phew! Glad Im not the only one this happens to! I can't even count how many times I had to write a new beginning for the book I just finished writing and if it finds a home with a publisher, I am sure, I will have to do more!

  5. Glad to hear that I'm not alone in my waffling around! I think the problem is that any story can be told many different ways. The trick is finding the one that allows *me* to tell it the best. And not to doubt myself while I'm doing that. I'm famous for thinking "what if?" too much.

  6. YES, thank you! Beginnings are SO difficult. I always go back and have to fix things. Then I mess things up and have to fix it again. There is something to be said for that momentum you build once you're in the story. But how to get there? What details to share in the opening, and when, and how much? I never seem to know. I just wrote a prologue for my WIP but I'm not sure if it works!