Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Back to the Beginning

Where to begin?

I recently read an old version of FLASHFALL with its original beginning. It was nostalgic, and also eye-opening.

My original first page was good, but it wasn’t right for the start of the book. I’m so glad that, after writing and revising that manuscript so many times, I went back to the beginning long after I’d reached the end.

Books are like relationships. When you first meet—the beginning is fun and exciting, something about that person (or story idea) hooks you and makes you want to spend more time with them. But it’s new and you are just starting to know someone. How you understand them in the first few days is very different from how you know them after spending every day with them for three months. Or six months. Or two years.

This is a helpful analogy to consider when crafting the opening chapter of your book.

I had Orion’s voice in the beginning, but it was the deeper layers—her motivations, and the influences of the setting impacting her—that I developed and improved upon in later versions. Before sending FLASHFALL on submission, my agent pushed me to ‘try out’ a new opening chapter. Against my will, I delved into brand new territory (after living with the story for nine months.) What I discovered was a stronger inciting incident, and moments that were more layered with character and nuance than I had in my original beginning.

You may have heard it said that the first drafts of the first chapters are for the writer—to understand the world and the characters—and the rest of the book is for the readers. While I don’t like to generalize about writers and their processes (we all art in different ways), I think this saying is valid, and likely true for many of us (particularly in the drafting stage.)

Where to Start?

The beginnings of our books are critical--as important as the climax and whatever rising action drives our characters to their breaking points. Not only must we hook readers with our first lines, but what follows sets the tone of the book, grounds readers in the setting, and—most importantly—gives them a strong sense of who the main character is and what he/she might be willing to do to accomplish his/her goal.

One way to make certain you’ve given your book the absolute best launching point: go back to the beginning after you’ve reached the end. Try writing a new opening chapter. It might help you uncover a moment, a bit of dialogue, or an entire scene that’s great. I’ve blogged in more detail about this here.

This is different than revision. You aren’t fine-tuning what you first wrote. This is trying it again after you’ve been married to your story and characters for awhile.

I’m not suggesting you toss out what you’ve already written. Just try a new opening on for size and see how it fits. I ended up keeping most of my original first chapter of FLASHFALL. (It’s just not the first chapter anymore!)

I’m currently using this tactic on a new project. When I first wrote it, it felt like a really solid opening. Going back to it after a two-month break has shown me it needs work. I don’t know the story well enough yet. The main character has sides to him that I haven’t uncovered. There’s so much backstory that I feel like I’m having a meal of only steak—no potatoes or salad, no promise of dessert. It’s my ‘writer’s’ beginning that I needed to draft to set me on my journey. When I’ve reached the end, I’ll go back and craft something just right for readers.

We all have different ways of working through our stories. This is one exercise that’s helped me find my best beginnings. Maybe it can help you find yours.

Happy writing!  
Jenny Moyer is the author of YA sci-fi/fantasy FLASHFALL (Holt/Macmillan, fall 2016) She studied writing at Seattle Pacific University, and currently lives in Iowa with her filmmaker husband and three boys. She's currently at work on the sequel to FLASHFALL.

Where to find Jenny: Website, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

Where to find FLASHFALL: Goodreads

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