Wednesday, August 31, 2011

At the End of Summer, a Word on Beginnings

     I love beginnings. Weddings, babies, new school years, mornings. Clean slates, possibilities, nothing I’ve screwed up. Yet.
     I never begin reading a book without the feeling that almost anything might happen. I might love it. I might hate it. I might throw it across the room in frustration. I simply don’t know yet.
     As for writing beginnings . . . well, here’s the deal. I hate it. With the white-hot passion of a thousand suns I prick the blood from my fingertips and achingly scrawl letter by letter--
     Okay, you get the clichéd drift.
     There are just so many things to remember about beginnings. And so much riding on them. We all know the beginning will make or break our shot with an agent or editor. If they don’t like the first page, they’ll never see the second. So you’d better write a killer first page. Or first paragraph. Or even first word.
     Sigh. Now I’m looking at the first word of this piece and worrying about it. I. Is that a good word choice? Does it make anyone want to read further? Or does it turn readers off? Are they thinking to themselves: “Why would I want to read anything that’s so obviously self-centered? It’s not about me—it’s about the vanity of the author.”
     Double sigh.
     It’s my completely biased opinion that beginnings are rewritten more times than anything else. Polished to a perfect gloss, every word chosen with aching care, paced to perfection—I’ve done it myself. Recently. The only catch? I never got around to finishing the story. My characters were stuck in mid-novel for months at a time while I tinkered with the opening.
     You’d think that, after landing an agent and selling a trilogy, I’d have learned my lesson. That lesson being: Beginnings are often dictated by the endings. If the ending hasn’t been written, how do you know that you have the perfect beginning? Clearly I haven’t, because in ten weeks I’ve only written a thousand words in book two of said trilogy. Yes, sure, I’ve been blindsided by a cross-country move and living in temporary housing for three weeks and a hurricane, but still. Some of that delay is sheer terror at screwing up the beginning.
     So my advice, completely unasked for, is this: Write the whole piece—poem, essay, column, story, novel, whatever. Finish. See your entire story arc on paper. Get a feel for the style and structure and voice of the piece. Find out just what it is you have to deliver.
And then go back and write the opening that promises whatever it is you have to give.
     But for the love of books and libraries and all things sacred to the writer:  Do not get so caught up in the opening that you forget to write the rest.

1 comment:

  1. Truly excellent advice, which I'll be taking this week. Or hope I'll be taking. So far I'm still hung up on the research. ;)