Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Beginning is a Very Good Place to Start

My friend is slowly dipping her toe into fiction, after years in journalism, and posed the question: where do you start - at the beginning or do you jot down scenes and fill in the blanks as you go. Here is my answer to her, and I'd love to hear your answers as well!

I just saw this, and thanks again for picking up my book! As for me, I do start at the very beginning. (Though I know have Julie Andrews singing in my head!) I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) the first chapter of the book is maybe the most important, in terms of letting readers know everything they need to know about your lead character, and I've found, for me, that picking the exact precise moment of where to start the book helps set the stage for the rest of it. For example, and this might really clarify what I'm talking about: in the very first draft of The Department, I had 99 OTHER PAGES before the first page that you read now. Yikes! I had all of these scenes leading up to Natalie discovering the lump and getting her diagnosis, etc, but guess what? It turned out that all of these were unnecessary, and that I could take various ideas from those 99 pages and weave them into what is now the first chapter: BAM - there's a paragraph about the discovery of the lump, BAM, there's a paragraph about what a loser her boyfriend is, BAM, there a nugget about her job, etc. So once I realized how critical that first chapter was (and again, I've learned so much from writing that book!) in terms of stage setting, I tend to really focus on it a lot when I'm writing a book. A reader should immediately be brought into the action, and for me, to start elsewhere - another scene or whatever - might not ensure this immediacy because you'd have to work backwards in your writing (and thinking). If that makes sense. But again, this is just what works for me.

Another reason that I start at the beginning is the fact that I DO let my character speak to me. Which, until you've really been possessed by fiction, sounds incredibly hokey and eye-rolling-worthy. But I let them take me where they want to go - I don't create a master outline or an overall plan - and if I started with a difference scene, it tamper with the organic nature of my writing. Wow, does that sound ridiculous! What I mean is that my characters wander down their own path, and if I placed them in a scene smack dab in the middle of the path without knowing exactly what led them there, it might lack some sort of realistic cohesion. I think this is probably similar to what Stephen King does too (not that I'm comparing myself to him!), in that I have a general premise/situation, some lead characters, and then I go, go, go. (Note to AA readers: the Stephen King comment here was in reference to someone else's mention of him on the forum and what he states in his book, On Writing.)

So what say you readers? How do you tackle those first few steps of a new book?


suzanneelizabeths.com said...

For me, the impetus for a story will come as a picture in my mind. I see the character in a physical location and a 'what now' question that she is facing, and I start from there. You're absolutely right about the first chapter, and how it might not show up as such until a later draft.

I'm also a big believer in letting the first draft be whatever comes to mind without censoring, just get through from the beginning to the end on paper then go back and make it work and make it pretty.

Trish Ryan said...

With memoir, you can start writing anywhere, because you know what you'll need to cover--the story already exists, and the job is to figure out what the important details are to focus on. And I've discovered that my approach is similar with other non-fiction: I dive in to whatever idea is swimming through my head, not sure if it will be the beginning, middle, or end.

But as I think about writing fiction, I can see the benefit of Allison's point: you need to start from somewhere specific so there's room for you to see where the story wants to go.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Trish - interesting distinction, and one I wouldn't have thought of. Thanks for sharing!

Trish said...


I start where I think there is a good opening splash. Some call this the story spark. Of course, in revision, that changes (as you pointed out) and sometimes it's better for a story to start elsewhere, but I think your answer is right on.

Hope your writing is going well!



Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I've learned how important it is for me to get the opening down. I also know that what I think will be the opening (in the first draft) is not always how the book ultimately begins. But, it's important for me to get it right. I also like to have some vague sense of where I want my protagonist to end up . . . and then I'm simply filling in the arc from point A to point B.

Anonymous said...

A general idea, a character or two and a good lead. Then I see what happens.

Angie Ledbetter said...

I let the story flow however it wants to on the draft, then in edit, make sure that first chapter plunges the reader right into the heart of the problem/trouble along with the character.

Jenna said...

I'm still working out what works best but so far I'm finding luck with this...

I write the beginning and then a quick draft of the ending. Then I write key points or scenes as they come to me. This gets me to about 20k words.

Once I have all this I start at the beginning and write to my first key point/scene and then go from that scene to the next. I do jump around and bridge what I can when I get stuck. I always have a general structure of the novel in my head or sketched on paper.

And of course I'm very open, during the writing process to characters taking over and going places I didn't envision so my ending, or key scenes, may change and that's ok, I just like to have an idea of where I'm headed.

Great topic Allison!

Anonymous said...

Is it that you're starting at the beginning (of the story), or that you're starting at the beginning of the action?

Your talk of stripping 99 prelude pages sounds more like the latter. And it seems, to me, that this is where to get your reader hooked and carry on from there.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Jumile -
Yes, that's what I meant exactly. Thanks for the clarification. It's critical to start at the beginning of the action - that one snippet that readers MUST see to be drawn into the story. The rest of the background can be filled in as you go.

Anonymous said...

This is the same way I write. I have to get the first chapter buttoned down. Your comments about characters really chime with my own feelings. I wrote about it on my blog actually because it was something I struggled with when writing my first novel. Where I differ is that I do sketch out a whole plan for the novel but I am very flexible about it - the characters are the ones with the final say.


Anonymous said...

I just found this blog posting, which I think grew out of my question to you and other fiction writers on FLX. Blush, I'm so flattered that my question lead to a posting. Anyway, your answer was very helpful for me so thanks for answering it the way you did.

Now I'm wondering how to structure chapters. I DID start from the beginning and kept writing and writing and it's like one long stream of consciousness, sort of like Stephen King's Delores Claiborne. How do you go about structuring that first chapter and the rest to follow?


Allison Winn Scotch said...

Great question, Leah - I'll blog about it tomorrow!