Getting the beginning of a story right is hard. Oh, it’s not hard to start a story; it’s just hard to get it right when all the dust settles.
When you finally get that idea that’s been percolating for weeks or months all ready to go you have no trouble putting words to page. The first draft, especially the beginning, seems to flow. Partly it’s because it was the kernel of an idea that got you started in the first place and so you know how it starts. You might even know how it ends. The middle part seems like the hard part initially because you need to stitch it all together and keep the story moving forward with meaningful drama to fill in the holes. But you muddle your way through the middle and then hit the final stretch, which, by the way, seems to go on and on. You think you’re almost at the finish line but it’s like someone keeps moving it away from you. Finally you cross the finish line, and it’s a victory, although it’s short-lived and less spectacular than you thought it would feel. You know you still have a mountain of work ahead.
Once you finish that first draft you can breathe a sigh of relief and maybe step away for a few weeks. But you have to go back to the beginning again for the revision and this is when you can start poking sharp sticks into your eyeballs trying to solve the issues with your beginning, which suddenly doesn’t look as good as it did when you started on this journey.
There is so much advice out there about how to start your story. It should grab your attention right from the word go, but don’t use gimmicks and make sure you touch on all five senses in the first few pages or was that paragraphs? But really, you should make sure you sink the hook by the end of the first chapter, but keep in mind that you need to lay out some normal in there also and set-up the “Big Problem”. Don’t just go on and on with exposition, and make sure you show and not tell. You have a whole lot of information that you’ve been working on, you know, all the time spent world building. You have a compulsion to share that info with us even though it really doesn’t move the story forward. A lot of that can go into your boneyard of lonely used sentences. It’s kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys. Those words still have a fading hope of being used again in some form, maybe in a sequel. Anyway back to fixing the beginning…
You knew where you wanted the story to start but your alpha readers are telling you there’s not enough action there, you need to start the story in the middle of the action. But which action and which problem? You are likely introducing multiple issues in the beginning so where do you start? With the “Big Problem” or maybe a smaller conflict just to get the ball rolling? Some writing columns will tell you that really there are four acts to a novel, and you should put in some foundation of how our protagonist lives before he slash she encounters the “Big Problem.” Maybe you didn’t start far enough back. But remember, every chapter should have a conflict and move the story forward.
Having alpha readers is essential to this task. As the author you can often hear how your characters talk and you know what they know, but the reader has to discover all this by what you “show” them. It’s really easy to miss things that you forgot as the author that the reader doesn’t know already. The alpha reader can spot these from a mile away because they get confused. You didn’t provide enough background material somewhere, so you have to go back and add that in. Now you’re definitely not starting in the middle of the action.
So how do you reconcile all this? Well, you actually listen to your alpha and beta readers. You don’t have to use every piece of advice, but when you see repeatedly the same comments about a particular section then you need to understand what they’re telling you and go and fix it. Maybe not with their words, but it needs repaired somehow that answers the concerns they had. You manage to fix all these issues but you need to make sure you don’t lose your “Author’s Voice” in the process. I wish someone would tell me how to do that, but that’s a post for another day. Now you’re nearly done, but you haven’t read it out loud to make sure it sounds right and flows properly, so you find someone to read it to you out loud. You go back and iron out all those rough spots.
I don’t want to even talk about how many iterations this may take. I’ve rewritten and revised the first chapter at least a dozen times, maybe more, I’ve lost count. And of course any changes you make have repercussions throughout the book and you have to make sure the continuity holds up. YMMV.
Whew! Okay done. Now you start sending that one out and start the process all over again…
Who said this was easy?