When you go to write a novel, is there a right way to begin?
It would seem so, no? I mean, a book starts at the beginning, whether, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Whether, “At dusk they pour from the sky.” Or, “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.” Or, “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
A book opens with that first line. Some memorable, some not so much. But our hope as writers is to always start with a big fat punch.
That’s the published book though. And a thousand roads lead to a manuscript being finished.
Most folks think that writers start at the beginning, and write from there. And, many do. A lot of my authors outline the story before they ever put word one to paper. A lot of them start at the end. And of course, just about every way in between exists as well.
The inspiration for my first novel, By the Book, came to me through the voice of a young girl, calling her aunt. Just the voice. Just the name. I had no clue who these people were, or what was going on.
“Auntie Net, Auntie Net,” the child called, the words running together in my mind to sound more like Antietam.
And the book was quite a civil war . . .
That wasn’t the opening, however. It does make its appearance—just much later in the book.
My second novel, I Just Came here to Dance, came to me with the opening line: “Some folks said I went crazy that summer.” And that’s the opening line to the published edition as well.
A lot of authors write the conclusion first. It helps them to know exactly where the story is going, so they can tailor every scene to lead up to it.
Many of my writers have begun in the middle, a scene from the action coming to them first.
And many others do that outline, and follow from the opening line to the closing one.
The point being, it doesn’t much matter where you, as the author, begin writing your novel. It doesn’t matter the scene or the placement or who the people talking in your head are, at first.
No “right” way to do this exists.
Only your way does.
Doesn’t that occur in just about every aspect of writing? While you can read and hear how other authors do things, that doesn’t mean it will work for you. Creativity is an odd (and quite personal) process.
Writers contact me all the time with fears and trepidation about all parts of the practice.
I just spoke with one of my new writers, who’d just gotten back his edited manuscript and critique. And yes, a lot of work sprawled before him to be done. It can be overwhelming at first.
So many elements go into writing great fiction.
“I know you’re supposed to write every day,” he said, “but my work schedule just won’t permit that.” (He’s in the military, stationed overseas.)
He was quite concerned because everything he had read about “famous” authors said they wrote, without fail, every single day. Produced x-number of pages or words per day. Wrote at the same time. In the same place. Etc., etc.
Imagine his reassurance when I told him I personally knew lots of equally famous authors who didn’t go about it this way, but rather, didn’t write at all until long weekends and then produced enormous numbers of words.
Again, the point being, someone else’s way doesn’t matter. Unless if fits for you, it won’t work. All that matters is your way.
Let’s circle back to the beginning of a book. The thing is, that’s more than likely going to be completely rewritten anyway. Often books actually start fifty or so pages in, and all the front matter is just for your benefit, as the author, to get your sea legs under you with these people and this story.
That’s not always true, as in the opening line to Dance. But quite often the best beginnings to novels come once the initial draft is done, and you have a better grasp on the story and folks. Then you can write the perfect opening to your book. The one that grasps agents and editors and ultimately, readers, by the throat and compels them to read on.
So where is the idea place to begin a book?
Wherever you begin writing.
It is, as with all aspects of this craft, only important that you write.
How do you begin writing your novel?