New Beginnings

This seemed a fitting topic for a couple reasons.

To start, this is my first post since Shadowling was rescued from the bowels of the Internet by my domain registrar, NameCheap. They forgot to bill my card on file, which led to the domain registration lapsing, but they were also extremely helpful in resurrecting the site, plucking it from a place beyond death and breathing life back into it as if it were a latter-day Gandalf the White. The only downside is that I lost all of my previous blogs. This post represents a new beginning.

The poetry of that aside, I’m also starting work on a new book. Binder’s Blood, my first effort, is in the hands of alpha readers. As rewarding it is to see an idea that plagued me for so long in a semi-complete state, it’s daunting to be starting on something brand new for the first time in a year or so.

For me, starting a novel really means beginning two or three new projects all at once and having them fight it out in my head. Think of it like the Hunger Games, except with more pretentious dialogue. Only one story shall survive, likely through treachery most foul.

I hate beginnings. The start of a novel is the hardest portion to write. That’s all right, because it should be: it’s the most important part. For established writers, the beginning of a novel is their chance to hook new readers and set the tone for their story. For an unpublished author like me, it takes on a whole new essentiality. The beginning of my book, especially the first 5-10 pages, is the only chance many new writers have to impress an agent.

Sure, this is unfair. Some books start slow. Binder’s Blood is a long piece, at 220,000+ words, and it begins as a meditation. Guess what? Agents don’t care. If that slow rumination doesn’t draw them in immediately, they have legitimate reason to believe that it won’t drag in readers who have no familiarity with a new author. I’m still in the midst of queries, but one of my biggest fears is that my beginning might not have requisite zing, and I haven’t decided what to do about it.

So, beginnings. What should a good beginning do?

Answers to that question may vary, but here are mine:

A good beginning…

1) …should establish the setting. Paint a picture so that the reader can fall into the world. It doesn’t matter if your first scene’s set in a junkyard or a crumbling palace on a distant world. Every place has quirks and magic to it, especially a mundane place. If your story is set in a back alley, why is there a spray painting of a mouse eating Manhattan on the wall? If every location has a bit of character, it’ll be more memorable and more precious to readers.

This shouldn’t be taken to encourage info-dumping. Piling on all of a place’s history and quirks in a few messy paragraphs turns the story into a boring textbook about a locale. Doling out hints over the course of the tale is much more likely to get readers curious about a setting. Keep them wanting more.

2) …should grab the reader’s interest. Many authors seem to think this means that a story must begin with an action scene. Robin Hobb’s brilliant Assassin’s Apprentice is a good case for proving this false. At the very beginning, we see the young bastard FitzChivalry delivered into the hands of his father’s soldiers. There is no fighting. There are no pulse-pounding chase scenes. We’re just given a boy who is sent to a group of rough men and many questions about why this has happened, and what the import of it is to the rest of the story. And it’s brilliant. By the end of the first chapter, the reader wants to know much more about Fitz and why his honorable father abandoned him. No action movie cliches needed.

That said, a good fight scene can be a stellar sell for a story. Within the first few pages of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, we see Richard, a woods guide, fight with a group of assassins who should definitely not be in his decidedly boring forest. He also rescues a beautiful and magical maiden from a realm beyond his own.

Your beginning must be a lure to the reader. Give them what they want, and they’ll stop there. Draw it out, tease them onward, and they’ll stay with you through the story you want to tell.

3) …should start at the right place. As an author, one of my biggest worries has always been where to begin things. Do I provide some setup, or am I brave enough to toss a reader into the fray and hope they won’t abandon the plot because it’s too confusing?

Some writers excel at beginning a tale in media res (“in the midst of things”) and can handily fill in the details of what has happened without making their first few pages feel like a “Previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…” introduction. Others, like Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time, really want us to settle in with the characters before any of the serious stuff starts to happen.

The good news is that most readers, especially genre fiction readers, are smarter than you’d think. Not only will they follow your plotting unless it’s a total mess, they’ll also extract and extrapolate information they aren’t specifically given. Worry less about them and more about where the story really starts. One tip that I’ve heard bandied about a few times is to begin writing where it feels right. Then cut off a few thousand words from the beginning. If the tale still makes good sense, you started too late. Cut the chaff, and you have a great new beginning.

4) …must set up the book that’s about to be read. Throwing in every possible trick to a hook a reader is great, but make sure that the beginning still fits with the rest of your story. All of the frills are great, but the single required function of a beginning is that it starts off your story. If you have a clever beginning, make sure that wit and sparkle carries through the entire tale. Make sure your setup has payoff, and your readers will love you for it.