Thursday, December 31, 2009


I'm thinking a lot about beginnings here at the end of 2009, with the new year set to roll in in just a few hours. Story beginnings, that is.

It took me a long time to find the beginning of Kindred. I wrote a good portion of the novel before I figured out where it actually began. I made two or three false starts before I settled on the opening chapter that currently resides on my hard drive (and the desks of several agents).

With Willa, I had a very clear picture of the opening scene, inspired in part by the photo that serves as my desktop wallpaper. You can find it here.

That doesn't mean I haven't struggled over the opening chapters of Willa. Mostly with the pacing. It's so easy to second guess. Some writers write down the bones of their story in their first draft. I need to spill out everything, bones, blood, and vital organs. Absolutely everything I think might even possibly need to be in the story. By the end I generally know what's story muscle, and what's needless padding, or an extra limb or two. (Next time I'll find a more attractive analogy!). It's not the tidiest, most economical way to go about this storytelling thing, but so far it's been my way no matter how I've tried to employ other methods. What can you do?

Here's a few quotes from other writers, about novel openings:

Blaise Pascal: The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first.

Gustave Flaubert: I am finding it very hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head.

Anthony Trollope: Perhaps the method of rushing at once 'in medias res' is, of all the ways of beginning a story... the least objectionable. The reader is made to think the gold lies so near the surface that he will be required to take very little trouble in digging for it.

J.R.R. Tolkien: I find it only too easy to write opening chapters--and at the moment the story is not unfolding. I squandered so much on the original 'Hobbit' (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world.  (Oh Professor, I'm SO glad you kept looking!)

Graham Greene: The beginning of a book holds more apprehensions for the novelist than the ending. After living with a book for a year or two, he has come to terms with his unconsciousness--the end will be imposed. But if a book is started in the wrong way, it may never be finished.

Joan Aiken: Such a sentence makes you hear the sound of books slapping shut all over the library. (of the opening sentence of Ivanhoe)

Michael Ondaatje: The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'   (I love this. If this is what I sense in the opening lines of a book, resting solidly behind whatever the actual words are, then that author has me hooked)

And the classic Lewis Carroll : "Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?" he asked.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

Happy 2010. May we finish what we begin!


  1. That desktop scene is quite evocative and mood-inducing:) Have you gotten the print you ordered yet? Beginnings are so important in novels and I sometimes think they're harder to tackle than the dreaded sagging middle. Endings are pretty easy, I think. Love the quotes here! Always a joy coming over to your 18c. part of the world, Lori:)

  2. Laura, Yes I did receive the print. It's a lovely 8x12. Now I just need to get a frame.

    It was fun looking up those quotes. I got absorbed in reading other writers struggles and opinions about story openings. Even though there's no easy answer but to write them, and then again, and again, and again, knowing I am not the only one who struggles with this or any other aspect of novel writing gives me that fellow pilgrim feeling.

    "Always a joy coming over to your 18c. part of the world"

    Back at you! So grand finding a kindred writing spirit who has the same 18C obsession. :-)

  3. Hi Lori, Happy New Year!!!

    A time for beginnings, yes. I chuckled at your analogy, but so true. I am a big picture person,too, have to get everything down and then decide what to keep. I can't believe there is someone else out there with simliar writing techniques, if we dare to call them that!

    I have struggles so much with Hope Springs Eternal trying to get the beginning right. I couldn't tell where to start no matter what so I just keep writing and I am getting there. What I thought was the first chapter, jumping right into the thick of things, just isn't going to work so I've had to keep back tracking without doing backstory. It's been more difficult than anything else I've written.

    Those quotes are great!

    I pray you'll be blessed with lots of inspiration and clarity while writing in this new year!

  4. Carla,

    Thank you! And may you experience the same with HSE.

    Are you a seat-of-the-pantser or a plotter? I'm somewhere between, but it sure seems like being a plotter is the easier row to hoe, doesn't it? My brain just doesn't work that way. I have another good analogy of how the process of writing/plotting ahead works for me, but I'll save it for another post. :)

    I bet once you've reached the end of Hope it will be clear where the story should start. I was very deep into writing Kindred before I knew for certain.

  5. Thanks, Lori. I'm a bit of both, too. I don't really have a particular writing style, though I think it would be more efficient if I were a true plotter. I'm always plotting in my mind, but never make anything formal of it. I have to see the big picture before I can begin to outline, but I have to write, write, write to get there. I have a general idea in my head where the story is going, but it usually just evolves. The more time I spend writing HSE the closer I am to finding the beginning.

    I love that desktop wallpaper!