Thursday, June 19, 2008

Start at the Beginning

Tip of the Day: Leave a book next to the spot where you keep your laptop. When you go to reach for the computer, with no purpose other than to "cruise the Net," grab the book instead!

One of my favorite bloggers, Jennifer Hubbard, whose blog can be found here: http://writerjenn.livejournal.com/, had a post recently where she talked about endings.

I thought maybe I'd do a three-part blogging series on beginnings, middles and endings, because each has it's challenges, that's for sure.

So today, let's talk about beginnings

I know for some people, me included, beginnings are easy. At least they seem easy. They seem easy because the story is new and the characters are new (unless you're writing a series, I suppose). Let's face it - those first few chapters of a new project are normally pretty fun.

The problem is that as you go, writing along, learning more and more about about where the story is going and who the characters are, often times, the original beginning doesn't work any more. So you go back and fiddle with it, wanting to get it right. Then you go back where you left off, and you keep writing, and more is revealed about the story and the character. And you sense the beginning still isn't right.

Does this sound familiar at all? I've heard some writers wait until the very end and then they go back and completely rewrite the beginning once they have the ending written. I've done that once, with FAR FROM YOU. Every other book, though, the original beginning has pretty much stayed, although I often end up adding things to it as I go along and figure out what elements are important to have in the beginning.

I love writing beginnings, and for the most part, I think I do a fair job. But I've heard some first pages at conferences read out loud and from those sessions, I've gotten a sense that plenty of people struggle with beginnings.

Here are a few things to avoid in the beginning of your novel for kids/teens:

~ Too many details that bog that first chapter down, describing the setting of the story or some other aspect that just isn't that important. Kids don't want to read three pages of what the castle looks like. They want to know WHY the character is IN the castle and WHY he can't seem to get out (if that's what the problem is).

~ Too many characters introduced at once. While Jane Austen may have gotten published doing this, it doesn't work so well in kid lit.

~ Talking to the reader - "I'm going to tell you a story about a little girl names Polly Petunia. Have you ever met a girl with a name like that?" Unless your book is going to be like this the WHOLE way and it's part of the overall voice (like J.D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, for example), it generally doesn't work well.

So what makes a GREAT beginning? Well, of course, one that hooks the reader and wants to make her keep reading. In Nancy Lamb's book, A WRITER'S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN, she says there are five essentials to keep in mind when creating the opening paragraphs. You may not use all of these devices, but certainly you'll want to use some.

1. Give the reader a sense of what the book is about. What kind of book is this?
2. Uncover a problem. Some books state the problem right away, others just hint at it. You really need to do one or the other. Give your reader a sense of what the conflict might be.
3. Reveal character
4. Pose a question to the reader. When a kid reads the first sentence of CHARLOTTE'S WEB - "Where's Papa going with that ax?" he wants to know, where IS Papa going with the ax?
5. Anchor the story in time and space. But be careful, because you don't want pages and pages of detail surrounding this. We just need to have a sense of where we're at, what time period, etc.

I think writing a good beginning is a little like walking a tightrope. It's a combination of character, conflict and setting, saying just enough about each, but not too much.

So - do you find beginnings easy or difficult? I would love to have you share a first line from a WIP or one of your books.

I'll start. The first line from FAR FROM YOU, my YA novel in verse coming out in January is - We're alone with only the cold and dark to keep us company.

~Lisa, Miss Pinch Me I'm Pubbed

8 comments:

D. Moonfire said...

"Gortam staggered back and clutched his side as blood poured from the ragged gap of his chain mail."

That's the WIP rewrite of my novel I've been preparing for while I wait for the flood water to recede and the apartment to become accessible again. (I live in Cedar Rapids, IA.)

For the first version, I had a problem of too many characters in a short period of time. Baring three characters, everyone was introduced in the first two chapters and two of them (Welf and Maef) had names that were too close to each other. So, I'm reworking it a bit and moving a bit before the story and the first three chapters are actually about the parents of the children (I have a 1 POV/chapter, which changes based on the story) and more gradually introduces characters and their personalities.

Since this is the fourth major rewrite (been shopping it for about two years now), I have all the important things really set up. I'm changing the world a bit more, since I just spent a month working on history, languages, and terrain of the world; plus going back more than a generation for all the characters should help. Those little changes I'm hoping will add a bit more depth and it resolved some of the plot jumps I hated.

Ghost Girl said...

Oh, yes, I can soooo relate to this, Lisa. I just revised the first chapter of my first YA for an editor...and I think it still needs some work.

My second book jump into the action so fast. It felt great! But for both of these books, I have gone back a million times, at different points in the writing process, to fiddle with the beginning.

Some great advice, here...THANKS!

Kate Fall said...

Lisa, don't doubt that you're inspirational! Your post inspired me to write a new beginning paragraph for my WIP. I like it so much better than the old one.

Moonfire, my thoughts are with you and what you've been through in Iowa. So glad that you're alright even if your apartment is not.

Ghost Girl said...

Oh, yes--I'm keeping you in my thoughts, too Moonfire. Take Care.

DeenaML said...

Oh man, I always think my beginning is AWESOME when I dive into a new story. Then later I'm like, "Crap! That's not right! It's too busy! It's not suspenseful! Gah!" The beginning in my current Revising For An Editor book has been rewritten like seriously 10 times. :)

D. Moonfire said...

I'm actually in good shape, compared to everyone else. My apartment was over a hundred feet from the flood level, but I couldn't get into my apartment because the water did get into the entry. My apartment building is about 100 feet from the river, right in the second worse place of the flooding. You could see it on one of the "Good Morning America" reports. :)

So, I consider myself fortunate. Very fortunate since I was well-prepared to flee (packed two days before, ended up leaving that night) and had in-laws to crash at for a week. Except for a severe laptop addiction (I blogged about that), I actually wasn't that badly hit.

http://moonfire.us/blog/2008/06/20/i-feel-like/

I did write a overly dramatic version of my visit back to my apartment earlier this week, just because it was fun.

Even with staring at the water line above my head, I still love Iowa though. Not bad for a Illinois city boy. :)

Emily Marshall said...

I'm horrible at beginnings. I tend to suffer from "trying to get too much crammed into the beginning." I end up having to change my beginnings alot (often at least 10 rewrites). And I'm beginning to think I need to do this again on one of my books.

Tabitha said...

I hate beginnings. I'm horrible at them, but they're so important that I can't write the rest of the story until I've gotten the first chapter right.

So, like with anything else I'm not very good at, I obsess over them. I plan out the story, write a paragraph, do more planning, write another paragraph, do more planning, etc. until the first chapter is finished. Then I go back and tweak, rewrite, tweak some more, rewrite again (lather, rinse repeat) until I've got something I'm relatively happy with. And that's usually twenty drafts later (I told you I obsessed).

Then, and only then, can I get on with the rest of the story - where I'll learn more about the plot and characters, which changes the beginning, and I need to go back and tweak. Again.

I know it sounds insane, but I rarely have to scrap an entire beginning. So it's what works for me. :) Just don't be surprised to find me in the looney bin in about ten years. :)