We sit in front of the keyboard, poised, with an idea for a book spinning in our head, and find ourselves afraid to start. After all, we are aware we have one paragraph, or three at best, to capture the attention of the reader. What do we do?
My friend and mentor, Elizabeth Searle, offered me a great tip to get past this initial fear: Think of your current opening as nothing more than a place mark. This keeps you from overthinking or overworking the prose when you’re itching to get into the thick of things. Just dive right into the story. You can return to the beginning later and get it right.
Consider that you may not really have your finger on the heartbeat of your story until you’ve written the end. Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles & Ends, says that every story promises something to the reader, emotionally and intellectually. The emotional promise is “Read this and be entertained, thrilled, titillated and completely absorbed.” The intellectual promise varies from “Read this and you’ll see the world in a new way,” to “Read this and what you believed about the world will be validated.”
Writers may not know when they start their story what the promises are, but they should have a firm grasp on things by the time they’re knee deep in their story. Often the promises may change by the time the ending is written. That’s why it’s helpful to initially think of your beginning as just a place mark.
I changed the beginning of my novel, In the Context of Love, countless times. When it was in chronological order, the opening chapters read like a YA novel; it is definitely not YA. I decided I needed to start the novel in the present time, when the narrator, Angelica, is an adult, and then have her reflect on her teens.
The hardest part in shaking up the order was finding the best opening. There were four possible scenes that I thought might have worked as a new beginning. To see how the story would progress, however, I had to basically reshape the rest of the novel. This led to weeks of trial and error. I sweated bullets of self-doubt while shuffling index chapter cards on the floor. For a while I was unhappy, preoccupied, snappish, and difficult for my family to get along with. I didn’t even get along with myself!
Once I settled on one particular opening scene, however, everything fit together. I still had to work on the transitions so the flashback fit seamlessly into the story. The trick was to make the scenes from the past meaty enough that the reader didn’t mind straying from the present day narrative for awhile.
Sometimes you fear you’re in over your head, or you don’t know what you’re writing about. This is when you have to trust you’ll somehow figure it out. As author A. L. Kennedy says “if you haven’t pulled an all-nighter and written until you can’t remember who you are and produced work you couldn’t possibly have produced and been ambushed by insights and dragged up mountains and over cliffs by ideas that don’t even feel like your own, then you’ve missed a treat. Just my opinion”
The treat is when you see it coming together! So don’t sweat that beginning.
Just get to work.
It’s far easier to re-craft the beginning when you know your characters well enough to understand their desires and fears, and you know what the main conflict in the story is. You can then write an opening scene that defines character and withholds enough information to capture the reader’s interest, as well as give hints of what good stuff is yet to come.
About IN THE CONTEXT OF LOVE
Angelica Schirrick wonders how her life could have gotten so far off-track. With two children in tow, she begins a journey of self-discovery that leads her back home to Ohio. It pains her to remember the promise her future once held and the shattering revelations that derailed her life. She must learn to accept the violence of her beginning before she can be open to life, and a second chance at love.
Buy the book HERE
Linda K Sienkiewicz’s poetry, short stories and essays have been published in more than fifty literary journals, such as Prairie Schooner, Clackamas Literary Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Permafrost, and A Twist of Noir. She has a poetry chapbook award from Bottom Dog Press, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and an MFA from The University of Southern Maine. Linda lives in Rochester, Michigan, where she spoils her grandchildren then sends them home. She works as a volunteer for a non-profit human services organization.
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