This is a time of year when we all think about beginnings. We take stock. We plan. Our hopes are high, we start out briskly and then …we trail off, finishing weakly, if at all. (But enough about my diet and exercise resolutions.) This year, my suggestion for writers everywhere is that we stop thinking so much about beginnings. Few of the oft-quoted pieces of advice are worse than the ones about beginnings: You have to grab them in the first page! The first paragraph! The first line!
Soon I expect to hear that the very first word of my manuscript has to “grab” the reader (which sounds kind of improper, and on such short acquaintance, too.).
Apparently this is nothing new. The great 19th century English novelist, Anthony Trollope, explains at the beginning of more than one novel that he was always advised to open his books with an exciting action scene. He complained that he liked that as much as the next person, but eventually he always had to backtrack and explain who everyone was and what the heroine looked like.
At one point I had a list of beginnings of great classic novels that would not, I think,grab that modern agent/editor/reader with the short attention span that we are all so afraid of:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“Um, okay, which was it?” I hear that impatient editor mutter, hurling Dickens’ hefty manuscript to the floor, and probably leaving a dent.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“What’s with the passive voice and the generalities?” the reader fumes, returning Austen’s book to the library unread, and hastening to Goodreads to write a nasty one-star review.
Yet somehow, despite these decidedly ungrabby beginnings, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen went on to have a fair amount of success, during their lifetimes and beyond.
Nonetheless, I see way too many writers take their highly polished beginnings to writing groups, conferences, etc., asking anxiously if the beginning is “good.”
“Does it grab you?” they ask eagerly.
Retreating a pace and crossing my arms defensively, I mumble, “Well, it depends what comes next.” Then I try to listen patiently to a description of what they have planned for the as-yet-unwritten Chapter Two, when I really want to shout, “ALL of what comes next! The rest of the book!”
“I don’t know if this is a good place to start,” they say, looking at me expectantly.
Sadly, nobody, including the writer, can possibly know if it’s a good place to start until they see where it’s going. So get one draft all the way done. Give yourself a chance to make all the discoveries you make about yourself, the world, your characters, the parts of speech and the use of the semicolon that come from completing a book length manuscript. Then, and only then, you will know enough about where you’re going to make sure you’re starting from the right place, and you can polish that beginning until it is positively blinding in its brilliance.
Dear Readers, if you have additional examples of openings that keep their hands politely to themselves, please add them in the comments, and best wishes for a happy and productive new year!