Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Where do you start a book?

Tip of the Day: if you have trouble starting your story, just start walking through the bookstore and reading the first pages of several books you’ve never read before. And then focus more clearly on what pulls you in as a reader during that first page or what doesn’t make you connect with it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no idea where to start my stories. In each book I’ve written, I usually have a minimum of ten completely different drafts of the first chapter before I’ve settled on one. Just when I think I have it figured out, I realize that I’m wrong. I’m still trying to figure out the fine balance of jumping readers into the story, while still having a beginning where they can connect with the character.

So where exactly is a good place to start a novel?

Maybe we can discuss.

Here’s some thoughts I’ve gathered:

  1. It’s important to start at the pivotal point of the plot. Or at the conflict or situation that sets your character down the path for the plot of the book.
  2. But at the same time, sometimes I’ve found out that the conflict to start with isn’t the main conflict of the book, but opens or leads to it in some way. For example, the Princess Diaries starts out with Mia finding out her mother is dating her teacher, not that she finds out she’s a princess. But that first conflict is necessary to show her going from ordinary teen to royalty.
  3. It’s important to show who your character is from page 1.
  4. Something has to happen for the reader to connect with the character in Chapter 1: either an embarrassing event, life-changing circumstance the reader can connect with, or even the way the main character thinks or handles the situation. But that connection has to happen quickly.
  5. While it’s important to show all of this quickly, it’s just as important that it doesn’t overwhelm the reader and there’s not too much going on. Focus on one conflict at a time, but make sure it fits into the overarching plot.

Easy, right?

Maybe this is why beginnings are so hard. There’s so much that needs to be accomplished in that first chapter. And at the same time, it needs to feel natural and not too confusing or overloaded.

Do you agree? What helps you determine where to start a story?

--Emily, Miss Querylicious


DeenaML said...

Em, I think you're great at beginnings! They always pull me in with their fast pace and humor and quirky characters.

Kate Fall said...

This is really good timing for me. My local crit group is meeting tonight and looking at the first chapter of my middle grade story. I hope I accomplished everything on your list!

I'm a little worried that the story starts abruptly. I'm trying to get that balance between action and finding out enough about the characters and setting to care about them.

Lisa Schroeder said...

I rarely write new beginnings. I think I'm weird. I've heard of other authors who write a hundred different beginnings. Not me. Basically, I start at that point where something is changing for the character. A funeral, a new baby in the family, a move to a building where the cupcake shop will be, etc.

I seem to struggle more with endings, and how much is enough after the climax. My editors don't say much about my beginnings, but all have had me edit the endings.

Emily Marshall said...

Deena, really? I'm kind of surprised by that. But I know I've gone through several beginnings by the time you see them. But then when I change the beginning they always seem better. But thank you. You sort of made me feel better.

Kate, I always worry about an abrupt start and how much detail to drop.

Lisa, I'm incredibly jealous you've figured out where to start so well. Maybe it's because I don't really know the story fully myself when I start, so I play around with it to figure it out. And when I'm done I've always had to rewrite the beginning based on how the book has turned out.

Kristina Springer said...

I don't think I've ever rewritten a beginning either. I just jump right into some action first thing and see where it goes.

Jen said...

My starting point is SO random. I often start my novels based on experiments, exercises or prompts. So, it's hard to say.

On my current WIP, I started with a prologue (yeah, I know - no prologues!)

I think I went directly to my first chapter from there, but last time I started about 1/3 of the way into the book because I had this ONE scene in my head.

woman who roars said...

I started my book at the beginning with an intent to establish the main character, in some ways more for myself, because she changes so much over the course of the story.

But once I had the first 20 pages down, I skipped ahead to the pivotal incident. I found it easier to write convincingly about the MCs tranformation with where she'd started so fresh in my mind.

DeenaML said...

OK, I had to read this post again and think about it and the replies bc I just got revision notes on my revision from my agent and she says I need to rewrite Chap 1 -- hee hee! But I know she's right! Notice how earlier I didn't comment on my OWN non-ability to write first chaps.... :) I may be sending a brainstorming email to those who've read STAFF ROAD....

Christina Farley said...

Great thoughts here! I hate beginnings. But once I'm done with the first chapter, I'm good until the middle. The point right before the building climax. I hate sagging middles but I don't want to rush the climax either. You see my delimna?

Emily Marshall said...

Tina, I'm so jealous.

Jen, I might have to try that. I remember you saying you write scenes and them put them together. That might help me figure out the starting point.

Sierra, I think that's what I'm going to have to end up doing. Writing more than I need to get to know the character. Good thoughts. Thanks.

Deena, those beginnings are so tough. I know you'll get it though.

Christina, yes middles are just as hard! Wait...so are those endings too. Goodness what isn't tough?