Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In The End Was The Beginning

Early on in my writing career a friend of my mother's made an infuriating comment over dinner. On being asked how I was getting on with my book I said, "I'm on the fifth draft at the moment." He looked startled and said, "Why can't you get it right the first time?"

I was glad when my mother never invited him back.

It was months ago—way back in July when I happily announced to all and sundry that I had finally "turned" in my fifth book. Well ... since then I've turned in the same book three more times and that's just to my agent. My editor received her copy only last Wednesday and of course I know I'll be doing a few more rounds with her. If only I could get it right the first time!

My biggest challenge is always the first ten pages. When I hear of other writers having to write the first chapter of a sequel that will be tagged onto their soon-to-be-published book as a bonus, I quake in my boots because I always write the first chapter last. When I'm starting a book, I begin on chapter two and it's only at the end that I write the beginning because I believe "in the end is the beginning."

Those first few pages are important—the first sentence is crucial. You want to reassure the reader that there is a great story there and pull them right on in.

Writing instructor and guru Lisa Cron believes the biggest mistake many writers make is withholding the very information at the beginning of their book that would hook the reader in. If you haven't already read Lisa's book Wired For Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook the Readers from the Very First Sentence—go and buy a copy. It's excellent.

She believes the following three elements should be right there in the first paragraph.

1. All stories can be summed up in one sentence—all is not as it seems and/or something surprising or out of the ordinary is about to happen.
2. Who is the story happening to? Whose skin are we going to be in?
3. Something needs to be at stake. Something we can sense is hanging in the balance.

Here are a few of my favorite first sentences—

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: The Scarecrow
"The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."

Donna Tartt: The Secret History
"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Dick Francis: Nerve
"Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races."

Charlie Howard: The Good Thief's Guide to Venice
"There was a burglar in my apartment, and for once it wasn't me."

Dodie Smith: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Anyone want to add their favorites?

1 comment:

j welling said...

I'd hoped to see more.

I love Chandler and he has an opening paragraph that I think is fantastic in _The Little Sister_. I couldn't get away with it but in the day, Chandler certainly could. I quote :

The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: "Philip Marlowe ... Investigations." It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in - there's nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you're from Manhattan, Kansas.