Thursday, May 23, 2013

Inspired by Beginnings: Thirteen Things to Consider

Beginnings are hard, especially in fiction writing. You've got to keep track of so many things. When I first started writing, I’d rework and rework my story’s start until it was as flat and lifeless as highway road kill.

Even then, I’d fret and rewrite and fret some more.


Now, I just start. I jot down words, sentences and paragraphs, figuring I’ll refine them later. I’m fortunate because I've had awesome teachers, some super-talented critique partners, and I rewrite fairly well.

 Anyway, after I've finished the first scene, chapter or rough draft, I step back, look at the first page, its initial 13 lines (250 words or so), then consider these questions:



  1. Did I begin in the right place?  If I’ve included lots of explanation and background facts — stuff I felt the reader had to know to understand the scene, chances are my story is much too slow off the starting block.
  2. Is my opening picturesque? With lots of description and scene-setting details? If so, it may be a lovely still life, a word painting, but it’s not likely to interest a reader. To fix this, I try to view the setting through my main character’s personality or through his or her actions. I’ve heard a story should start with action so I’ll add movement -- my main character interacting with the scenery if necessary.
  3. Can the reader tell my story’s place and time? How can I give them that anchor?  Maybe I need to add a date or a detail to nail down the story’s setting.
  4. The next point goes along with setting, but it’s more of daily life view. I ask: Is there a hint of where my protagonist is from? A glimpse of his/her everyday world so the reader can see the condition of my character’s life before the event that changes him or her and sets off the tale.
  5. Then I look to see if readers can easily determine the kind of tale I’m telling. Lots of readers are genre fans. They like mysteries or romances or thrillers, and they look for elements of their favorite genres in the novels they pick up. Usually a mystery has a crime at its heart while a romance revolves around the meeting of two interesting people. The genre elements help readers determine if the story is their kind of read.  I ask myself: Have I included appropriate elements for my genre?
  6. The next point: Can readers identity the main character?  Readers want to live the story with the hero or heroine, so it’s enticing if his or her personality stands front and center.
  7. These next aspects dovetail off the last: Does the main character have qualities and desires readers can imagine in themselves? If readers are going to experience the story's action along with my protagonist, they’ll have to understand and identify with him or her. How can I help them do this?
  8. Although my hero has admirable qualities, he/she can’t be flat. The main character also must have flaws to make him/her human and interesting. Complex characters intrigue readers. If I’ve only shown my character’s good qualities, a revision clearly is in order.
  9. Because readers can only view what I show them, I must ponder this question: Is the problem my character faces readily apparent? Can the reader readily identify with it? Conflict makes for a good story, so have I shown a conflict?
  10. Does the main character have an emotional feeling about what’s happening to him or her? Part of being human is that we react to events happening to us. My main character has to react as well. So ask myself:  Can a reader sense what my character’s feeling? If not, how can I better convey that emotion?
  11. Is there a villain or an antagonist? Someone or something that opposes the protagonist in the opening passages? If not, I should add that opposition upfront.
  12. Does my opening contain an Unintended Surprise? Something that jars a reader out of the story? A part that’s confusing?  How did this happen?  It's not good. Perhaps I’ve left out significant details in my telling, important details stored in my head, but not yet shared with the reader?  My fix: add those missing pieces ASAP. But don't get wordy.
  13. Lastly, I tackle this question:  Do I like the opening? If I don’t, it heads back to revision. If I do, regardless of whether it answers each of my questions, it’s a Keeper.
           
  Are you a writer? Or a reader? What do you look for in beginnings? Have I left out something I should have mentioned? Please let me know in the comments. I am, and always will be, a writer who wants to learn something new about my craft every day of my life.

Before I ring down the curtain, here's an awesome opening that satisfies many of my considerations. The opening motivates me not only to read the novel, but to study it carefully in the hope of someday coming up with a beginning as well crafted.       http://www.elizabethhoyt.com/maidenlane/books/lordofdarkness.php#excerpt

Are you a writer? Or a reader? What do you look for in your beginnings? Have I left something out I should have mentioned? Please let me know in the comments. I am, and will always be, a writer, who wants to learn just a little more craft.


Sources

   Too many to name: critique partners’ advice, RWA loop offerings, Waukesha
County Technical College writing classes, lots of books on the writer's craft, and many a helpful blog.  In other words, all the learning I’m trying to retain.



I want to include a special shout out to Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez for their Thursday’s Children weekly blog hop where writers share their inspirations. Thanks.




47 comments:

  1. Many interesting questions there. When I'm writing a long work I tend to begin with chapter by chapter notes, list of characters, etc, so that when I begin writing, most of the questions are answered.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anthony,
      Good plan. Plotting is good.

      Delete
  2. I'm going to have to read through those slower and more carefully. Those are some really good points. Thanks for sharing. And wait, what, Waukesha? I am in New Berlin, btw...are we really that close in proximity? ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shanah,

      Yep, we're close. I'm in Brookfield.

      Delete
  3. These are great! I'm totally bookmarking this post for future reference. Thank you! :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great things to consider! My only real rules as a reader are that the opening page has to make me "feel" something - fear, curiosity, amusement - and that desire to turn to page 2. I definitely don't like long-winded scenery descriptions, nor do I like so much action that I can't figure out who's doing what or why.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's a good point. An opening page has to make a reader "feel".

      Delete
  5. Good questions! I like to think of the first 250 words of a manuscript as Boardwalk in monopoly, the most expensive piece of real estate in your manuscript. Nothing else is as important. Great post!
    ~Dannie @ Left to Write

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dannie,
      Oh, I love the comparison! Boardwalk. Yep, the first page is Boardwalk in the monopoly game. :)

      Delete
  6. All good tips to edit the dreaded first page! Best of luck with this WIP :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, EM,

      My current wip is always my favorite.

      Delete
  7. My #ThursdaysChildren post this week was about beginnings too! I love all your questions, so I just ran through my first page with the checklist. I do tend to go for that emotional connection first, but it's so important to think about all the details too. In so many contests or even in straight querying these days, 250 words is all you get to get in the door, so those words have got to sing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I like cinching that the emotional connection, too.

      Delete
  8. It's all stuff that I also tend to look at, but hardly ever in the first revision. Maybe that's why my process is so slow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alice Audrey,
      I'm with you. It's probably good to make layered revisions.

      Delete
  9. Opening and ending lines are so important, as is a mix of character strengths and flaws. I just don't want to know ahead of time what's going to happen and likr to be surprised!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Colleen,
    Yep, opening and ending lines are important. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great list! It always amazes me how many revisions I can go through before I find the perfect beginning. When my agent suggested I come up with a new first sentence, I was horror struck. So much pressure on so few words.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PatEsden,
      I feel for you. Beginnings are so, so hard.

      Delete
  12. Excellent list. I tend to go back to beginnings after I've written. Sometimes I know exactly how to begin something, but often it comes to me much later in the process. It is something I have learned to be "open" to, one of those muse things. If I try to force it, it seldom works.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I write better when I'm open to my muse, too.

      Delete
  13. The method to my writing has evolved over the years and is still changing as new knowledge seeps into my brain. Thanks for this list. Happy T13!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Adelle,

    I like how you think, how your writing is evolving as new knowledge seeps in. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm horrible at beginnings :) I usually have to revise the beginning seven or eight times, because I start too early. We'll call that Weakness #1 :)

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Your list is great; you thought of everything. I'm a writer. I try to make the first line the most exciting, powerful, or descriptive. Thanks for sharing.

    The Food Temptress

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm brilliant at imagining a picturesque opening. But writing it? totally useless. Probably the reason why I haven't written anything since 4th grade composition class. Great list. Makes me rethink my writing behavior.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Hazel,
      I wish you success and pleasure when you try writing again.

      Delete
  18. Hi Mia! Wonderful post with lots of great ideas. I know I always want to have a sense of the protag in the beginning and something about him/her that I find relatable or engaging.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. D.D. Falvo,
      I think you're right. Readers are looking for a sense of the protagonist at the story's start.

      Delete
  19. I am both reader and writer ... well trying to be a writer to be precised. These are good advice, I will note it all down . thanks :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Novroz,
      I think we're all readers and writers. Let's stick together.

      Delete
  20. I have to read through those points again and bookmark this site. Beginnings are usually the worst for me: slow and meandering until I really grab a hold of my story and take off. This kind of checklist would be great to have when I revise, so thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeannette,
      You're not alone in thinking beginnings are the worst. :)

      Delete
  21. Thanks for joining us. You're so right, beginnings are the hardest. I now accept that it's the part of any manuscript that's going to be the most rewritten!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Great post, Mia. It makes me want to go back to a few opening chapters and dissect them. :) When writing an MS, I tend to finish the first draft completely, then revise the first chapter. However, next time, I'll pause and review w/ these questions!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Debbie Causevic,
      I'm not saying when you should revise your opening. That's up to you.

      Delete
  23. Awesome post, you've thought of some great questions to consider!

    Kelly (www.kellyaevans.com)

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks for giving us a peek behind the curtain at your creative process. Opening lines are so important. Have you ever read The Postman Always Rings Twice? I love the opening, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon."

    ReplyDelete
  25. This is a great checklist MIa - I'll have to go through it in more detail and see if my novel ticks any boxes. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Great post Mia. These questions are a great way to workshop the first act of a story... I would even stop and do this exercise before continuing on with Acts II and III.

    Nice one!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Great points! As a reader, I like the opening to give a very good indication about the plot. As a writer, I tend to want to throw all my back story in and set the stage before getting to the "real" story. I'm trying to move the pace in the beginning and fill in blanks as we go on.

    ReplyDelete
  28. This is so interesting. Esp. #3 and #6. It's not just including detail, it's including the RIGHT detail, isn't it? You want the reader to identify and feel engaged but not bogged down.

    ReplyDelete

 
ja