Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In the Beginning...

Okay, so dude, I think the beginning of the novel is the hardest to write. Let me just get that out there up front (if only I could do that in my books!).

I know some people complain about the middles, how they sag, how they get muddled, whatever. I'd rather work on a middle than a beginning.

Some people mention the end, how hard they are to get right, how they have to be crafted just so, they have to pay off, etc. I'd much rather work on an end than a beginning.


The beginning is just -- so -- hard.

I've been thinking a lot about why beginnings are difficult for me. I've also been preparing for a presentation to a group of teen authors.

And suddenly, it hit me.

Beginnings are SO HARD because you have to DO SO MUCH in SUCH A SHORT NUMBER OF PAGES.

There are things readers expect:
1. A hook: something to keep them reading.
2. A sympathetic character: why keep reading if they don't care about what happens to the person?
3. Well-crafted writing.

There are things authors also must consider, that maybe readers don't notice as much:
1. A theme. Usually the theme is stated in the first 15 - 20 pages. Did you know that??
2. The set up. You have to establish the world as it is. And this can be hard to do in sci fi and fantasy. Heck, it can be hard to do in the real world.
3. You need the catalyst for change. This usually comes between page 35 - 50. I always tell my crit group, "I want to be surprised by 50." Like, whoa. Where did that come from? And how's the MC going to react to it?

So basically you've got 50 pages to hook a reader, set up the world (and how the MC sees the world), introduce the theme, build a character people will care about, and advance the plot through a catalyst.

No wonder I hate beginnings. No wonder I write out of order.

How do you feel about beginnings? What else do they need in order to be successful?

58 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I have to agree. It's the part I rewrite the most and usually the last part I rewrite for the last time. :)

Andrea Mack said...

Interesting. I can usually write a pretty good beginning (though I do rewrite it many times). It's what comes after where my story starts to fall apart!

Jen Daiker said...

To be honest I've never really thought about what goes in the beginning but this was brilliant.

I realize that you're talking about hating beginnings but I think you just shed some light on why I hate writing beginnings myself. Because I didn't know what the reader expected! This was so insightful! THANKS ELANA!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I agree! Beginnings are the most difficult for me. Add that the amount you still have to write is at its greatest.

DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

When you dissect it, it does sound complicated. I've heard of authors who've been asked to chop chapter one altogether and get on with it. Now I understand more why this would be so. No one cares for a sagging beginning!

Denise

Natalie Aguirre said...

I'm starting a new project and am on page 19. It's been rough and slow to start. I'm hoping since I'm getting from the old world and the hook into the story that I can move a bit quicker. Glad I'm not alone in struggling with the start.

And did you see the spotlight on Surrender at Mundie Moms? Congrats! Here's the link:
http://mundiemoms.blogspot.com/2012/03/waiting-on-wednesday-surrender-by-elana.html

Linda Jackson said...

The beginning is always the easiest to write for me. The ending is not so bad. But the middle always, ALWAYS, wears me out.

ryan graudin said...

Great post, Elana! Right now I definitely relate to it since I'm rewriting a beginning for a revision of a novel. It's hard!

April Plummer said...

Funny, I think endings are the hardest! Well...and sometimes, I hit a hump in the middle. But endings are the hardest. Beginnings are the easiest. They come pretty naturally to me for some reason.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Normally I just dive right in and try not to worry too much until edits, but for some reason I'm already freaking out about writing the beginning of my next novel. I know it needs to be on. (Don't they all?) The comedy is that I still have 5K on my WIP before I get to it. Talk about running down the path!
~ Wendy

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I have to rework my beginning, so what does that tell you? :( Hopefully I figured it out this time. Man, this is tough.

Lori Ann Freeland said...

Elana,
I'm so glad I found your blog! You say all the things I'm thinking!

I'm in the process of polishing my YA novel and getting ready to query agents.

I have rewritten my beginning, actually changed the scene, like five times.

Edited it maybe fifty times. It is so hard to get it just right.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so!

Christine Fonseca said...

I love beginnings - but I will admit, I can not write a thing until I have got the beginning firmly in my head!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Beginnings are the bane of my existence. I hardly ever have to redo my endings but the beginning I sometimes have to rewrite ten times, if not more.

Tricia Copeland said...

Wow, thanks so much for posting this! I've really been struggling with the beginning of my latest story, and I think it's because I don't really have a good feel of how long a beginning "should" be, or how to make it... Coherent... I guess.
I always benefit from your writing advice, Elana. I think you're an excellent storyteller and good at explaining what you mean. Pls keep it coming!!
Thanks :)

Miranda Hardy said...

Gosh, I'm totally with you on this one. My last book is sitting on the PC begging for a beginning I can't quite develop. Ugh.

Liza said...

Knowing I have to re-write the beginning of my WIP is killing me...I can't think how and need to include everything you've written about. I'm with you...the middle was fine, the end even better, but the beginning...oh how will I ever figure it out?

Braden said...

Well said, Elana. You nailed it.

storyqueen said...

For me, beginnings are easy-ish to write, but near impossible to revise! I am so afraid that whatever magic I created at the beginning which allowed me to actually "get into" the story is going to be ruined if I mess with it too much.

Even when it really needs to be messed with....

Shelley

Randy said...

Beginnings are my favorite part. It's an open road to an exciting new place. I'm not saying I write great beginnings, just that I enjoy that part of the novel writing experience.

Artemis Grey said...

For me it's a world of extremes. I've had uber super easy beginnings, more often than not, but there have been some that were/are excruciating. I'm mud-wrestling with one now. And I think it's even harder because it's a second book in a series. A sequel to a book that I never intended to have a sequel, but then that book evolved and became a series.

Thing is, it's a dystopian, so I get the ENTIRE ball of wax (and with your books, you'll get this totally :) with the world set up, hook, reintro of characters, bla bla bla, and I can't even skim a little like you sometimes can with contemporaries, you know, just to 'get something down' while you're getting into it. No, if I skim now, I'll regret it later because it'll only get more complicated. *sighs and loves writing even when she hates it* :)

Artemis Grey said...

For me it's a world of extremes. I've had uber super easy beginnings, more often than not, but there have been some that were/are excruciating. I'm mud-wrestling with one now. And I think it's even harder because it's a second book in a series. A sequel to a book that I never intended to have a sequel, but then that book evolved and became a series.

Thing is, it's a dystopian, so I get the ENTIRE ball of wax (and with your books, you'll get this totally :) with the world set up, hook, reintro of characters, bla bla bla, and I can't even skim a little like you sometimes can with contemporaries, you know, just to 'get something down' while you're getting into it. No, if I skim now, I'll regret it later because it'll only get more complicated. *sighs and loves writing even when she hates it* :)

LM Preston said...

None of my published books have their original beginings ... that shows how many times I've changed them.

Carolyn V said...

Yeah, there is a lot of emphasis on the beginning. But they are what I look at when I'm trying to decide if I'm going to read a book.

Kristin Lenz said...

First draft beginnings are easy for me, but going back and revising that beginning is where I struggle too. You're right, there's so much pressure - and even more so in YA I think. Some adult novels take 50-100 pages before they grab you, but most young readers won't wade through that much - These days, I rarely will either!

Fun to see your next book highlighted at the Mundie Moms blog this morning. :)

Angela Brown said...

I can't remember the name of the author who mentioned this, but she headed a panel discussing the perils of novel beginnings. She called it getting stuck in the Bermuda Triangle. Get started on the first chapter. Write through the second, then when you get to the third, realize there's something that needed to get introduced in the first chapter. And thus starts the slide into the Triangle, constantly going back and forth between the first three chapters trying to fit in all the differenct apsects you mentioned in today's post.

Without thinking about it, beginnings can flow out, but once you start trying to fit in all the things needed, it can really be a big deal, and a bit daunting.

ilima said...

Agreed! Beginnings are tough, and I feel like I spend just as much time on my first chapter as I do on the rest of the book. So much to accomplish in such little time. I'm gonna flip through my WIP right now to make sure my catalyst happens in the first 50. I totally write out of order too. :)

Stacy Henrie said...

Yes, beginnings are hard! But I still can't write out of order. :)

Melanie Fowler said...

I've written so many beginnings it's not even funny. And all of them got thrown in the 'written, but crap' pile. You're right about having so many things to put in the first 50 pages.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Ugh. Okay, now I think I have an upset stomach. I think I liked beginnings better before you spelled it out for me. He he. Not that I EVER liked them. :-)

L.T. Elliot said...

I kind of hate beginnings, too. That first 50 pressure freaking sucks. But, I guess you have to have them, right?

Matthew MacNish said...

Getting them right is hard, but so satisfying once you do. Assuming, you know, I did.

Julie Daines said...

I rock at first chapters. It's always chapter 2 and 3 where I take a nose dive. I usually recover by chapter 4. Hopefully I recover anyway.

Sarah Allen said...

I really enjoyed writing the beginning, probably more then any other part. However, going back for edits, the beginning is definitely the part that needs the most work.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Sarah said...

I usually don't have a problem with beginnings. I get an idea and run with it for about 20 pages and then trip and fall flat on my face and 9 times out of 10 don't write much more.

However, the beginning of my current WIP is taking me quite a while to write, but I do know exactly where the whole story is going, so maybe this is a sign that this one might stick! Fingers crossed!

Talli Roland said...

You must be reading my mind! Seriously!

Today, I started Draft 2. First step: rewriting the beginning. It AGES, because of everything you mention, and I'm still not happy with it. Plus, on top of trying to get all that stuff in, I don't want it to seem laboured, yanno? SIGH!

Kelly Hashway said...

Sometimes your posts hit home so much so that I think you must be spying on me. LOL. I'm writing the beginning of a new MS right now. I got into the third chapter and broke my rule of not reading what I wrote until the first draft is finished. I had to know if my opening was good or if I needed to rework it before moving on. While I found places to make it better and made necessary changes, I feel better knowing that I do set up the things I need to in those opening pages.
I completely agree though. Openings are tough. Once I get past them, the words just flow.

Shallee said...

AMEN. I revise my beginning more than any other part of the book. Like you said, it's hard to fit all those necessary things in and make it flow just right.

I also have a hard time because...it's the beginning. When I just get started, I don't have previous scenes to draw on for direction. Getting the first few words down is always tough.

L. G. Keltner said...

You nailed it! The beginning is hard for me too, especially since I write science fiction almost exclusively. It's hard to set up the world in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader with too much dry information up front. I'd say, as a writer, that's been the hardest obstacle for me to overcome.

Peggy Eddleman said...

I am SO with you! Beginnings always make me feel like I've forgotten how to be a writer.

Jo Schaffer said...

Super true.
I was just thinking about this as I was critiquing and scoring about a million entries for the TABC First Chapter contest. The right beginning has to really grab you--or you lose hope that it gets any better.

Ashley Odum Writes said...

I agree. I often start in the middle and work my way to the end. Then I go back to finish the beginning. Like you said, there is so much that has to go in the beginning.
-Ash

http://ashleys-writings.blogspot.com

Robin said...

Agreed. Beginning are SO hard. Usually in my first draft I start in the wrong place, struggle with telling, and feel so much pressure to get it right.

Endings feel satisfying. Middles need chocolate, but beginnings, they need peptalks AND chocolate.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm currently having much more troubles with my endings. I've rewritten this one more times than I care to admit!

Beginnings are tough. It's hard to know when to start and how much to slip in and when to add those tidbits that will entice the reader and... hard!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Beginnings are the last thing that come to me. Yes - the very last thing. No, that's wrong. The first line is the very, very last thing.

Red Boot Pearl said...

Beginnings are sooo hard, it sets the tone for the rest of the book--so if you mess it up, there goes the rest!

June G said...

I've recently learned this in a class I'm taking. You're right on it, Elana--as usual! ;-)

Devin Cushman said...

I completely agree, the beginning is the hardest part. Especially if you're a novice writer and still finding your voice. The beginning of my MS was the part that got changed at least 27 times throughout the writing and editing process. I don't know if I'll ever be completely happy with it!

Heather said...

I couldn't agree more. Beginning are hard for me because I want to get them right so bad. They set the entire tone for the novel after all. For me, I need inspiration, pictures, music, something that makes me think of the story and characters.

Alice said...

Wow. Great summary of what needs to come in the first 50 pages. I need to go through my books and see if I've done that.

Marsha Sigman said...

Totally with you on this!!!

Nichole Giles said...

No wonder I hate starting new manuscripts. Maybe I should start writing backwards. Or scene by scene. Hm. I may have to try that.

Angie said...

Endings are my favorite thing to write! Beginnings? Not too bad for me, usually. The middle, though. Ugh.

Melodie Wright said...

AGREED! that first chapter kicks my butt every time.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

You are so right...that first 50 pages determines if you will finish the book, so they have to be great pages.

Have a wonderful weekend, Elana!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Yep, absolutely. That beginning is a sink or swim, do or die, animal. I've rewritten the opening pages of all my novels at least four times apiece.

Rachel Morgan said...

Um... Usually I just start and keep writing and it's only later that I stop to think about whether it was a good or bad place to begin! (I'm not sure if this is the best technique, but... um, yeah!)

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is so interesting - I LOVE beginnings, but I find that I have to go back and re-do them over and over. The thing is, I can't move forward until I have a solid beginning. Even if I go back and re-do it again at the end, before I can write the story, I have to have a good beginning, so I keep doing it over and over until I love it. Then I write out of order all over the place. :-)

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