The Real Beginning

As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her. This is the note:

If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.

Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).

And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:

Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!

I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my upcoming book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew!

As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (while you’re waiting for my book, check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog already here), and then give it your best shot.

If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for your own writing.

Should you want a chance to get a critique from me, I’m giving another Writer’s Digest webinar on May 10th. This is a general market overview, which I’ve given once in September 2010 and which I often give at conferences. If you haven’t taken a webinar from me before, or haven’t heard me speak, this is a great opportunity to hear a talk that I’m phasing out of my repertoire.

It covers the picture book, middle grade, and young adult marketplace and some bigger picture craft issues. Every writer will get a personalized critique of their picture book (up to 300 words), or the opening of their MG or YA novel (up to 500 words). It all happens on May 10th at 1 p.m. Eastern, but you don’t have to be present (if that time doesn’t work for you) to get the critique. Just register as a student anyway and you’ll get a recording of the webinar after the fact. You’ll also get to submit questions which are guaranteed an answer, either live or in a PDF that arrives in your inbox, and your work for some personalized feedback from me. Register here!

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  1. Laura’s avatar

    Is this webinar different from the one you gave in February through Writer’s Digest? It sounds like it, but I wanted to make sure. Thanks!

  2. Jesse’s avatar

    Excellent advice! I think a lot of beginners incorporate flashbacks without realizing it’s detrimental to their beginning. Your beginning should be one of the best parts of the book, and a flashback will destroy any momentum you may have created.

  3. Janelle’s avatar

    Just gonna call you The Clicker from now on. ‘Cuz when you say stuff, it clicks.

  4. Cara M.’s avatar

    Oh. :(

    Totally!!! That’s what’s wrong with my frigging opening!
    I’ve been playing with it for months, cutting the narration, adding in the narration, grafting scenes onto the front, softpedaling the flashbacks, hardpedaling the flashbacks. It all felt wrong, but I didn’t realize that, of course, this isn’t a short story, it’s not a tv show with a teaser, the first scene needs to be a scene, and it should be a scene long enough to actually get you into the story!
    I still have no idea what my beginning needs to be, but at least I know why the one I have now is wrong.

    Thanks!

  5. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Getting the beginning spot on is such a tricky and fine line to walk. On the flip side of too much backstory or flashbacks, I’ve seen first chapters that drop the reader right into a huge action scene where life or death is on the line.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But is has to be done right. If we don’t have any idea about what’s going on, who or what the main character is, and why we should care about them, it only results in confusion and frustration.

    Agh! Why do first chapters have to be so hard?

    You’ve already given the best advice–finish the whole novel and THEN rework the first chapter.

  6. Elan Cross’s avatar

    Wow, first chapters are hard! As I was reading this, I thought to myself, “Nope. I don’t have a flashback in the first 500 words. My beginning must suck for some other reason.” Then I read my first chapter. Two flashbacks. In the first 500 words. Damn.

    Mary, thank you again for nailing it. I think the first half of my first chapter needs to go. But the good news is that the second half of my first chapter is, I think, pretty good. And no flashbacks! Maybe that’s the real beginning?

  7. PK Hrezo’s avatar

    Yep, I still have my notes from your last webinar in September. It’s a good one! And reading Hooked helped me a lot … although I think it’s not only important to remember to start close to the inciting incident, but to also show the MC in their regular world before it changes, so the reader can connect with them better. I’m learning that during my revision process.
    Can’t wait for your book to come out … right about the time I’ll be revising a new story. Perfect. :)

  8. Katrina S. Forest’s avatar

    Hmm… now you’ve got me wondering, where’s the line between a character who’s simply remembering a tidbit of information from the past in the opening pages and one who’s jumping into an all-out flashback? I feel like I’ve seen the former done quite well before, though unfortunately, no exact titles come to mind.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Katrina — Great question! I’ll try to address this one on the blog soon.

  10. Kim’s avatar

    I love this post, because it’s so true. I used to lock myself into a start and never reconsider whether or not that’s the right start. But now I know I don’t really have to worry too much over how the book starts when I’m first writing it. In my experience, I can never find the right start until I’m done with the book and maybe not even until I’m done with the first revision. It’s usually somewhere near the end of it that I realize how I should actually start it.

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