Deb: In the Beginning

“The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put first.” ~ Pascal
How to start? This isn’t a question of motivation or of how
to get ideas on the page, though these are important considerations. It’s a
matter of those essential first lines, the ones on which all your readers,
including agents and editors, will judge your work.
Author Sinclair Lewis learned firsthand the importance of
beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen
Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair
and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the
book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis
told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even
the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book
is of paramount importance.”
Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to
an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each
agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two
hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end?
Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.
This was the scenario that played out at a recent “Writer
Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents,
there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were
generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too
much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or
the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors
trying for active beginnings overload them with action.
The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must
entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of
beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose.
Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with
setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are
tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged
readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with
it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs,
foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.
You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll
want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth
universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must
be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family
is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a
news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a
skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four
days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the
opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the
petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the
hay truck about noon,” begins James
Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and
there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.
With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the
story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene.
Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a
scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity.
In short, you’re hooked.
Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther
than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open
successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the
reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me
without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but
that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming,
confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis
on voice, it seems more than modern.
A final caveat: it’s all too easy to get attached to our
beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember – they’re not.
Try This: From your collection of favorite books, build a
playlist of great beginnings. Identify them by type, then use them as models to try out different openings for your work in progress.
Check This Out: Reading the greats is the best way to become
a better writer. But there are so many books, and there’s so little time. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad condenses the process, excerpting from the greats to
illustrate the basic concepts of fiction.
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