May 6, 2010

The Right Beginning

Recently, I had a critique partner tell me that my first attempt at a novel (Spellbound) 'didn't really start' until around page 7. I was, initially, thrown by this. Those first seven pages were (I thought) filled with important context and building tension. But then I got to thinking about those slippery things, beginnings: how do you know if where you start your story is where your story actually begins?

This seems like it should be a simple question, but it's one I continue to grapple with. Kristin, an American literary agent, says that maybe 70% of her slush pile is filled with stories that don't 'start' until 30 or more pages in. She attributes the fact that these manuscripts are slow out of the gate to two things: backstory and minutiae. She thinks that a lot of writers (especially beginners) feel the need to set up the story- character, tension, motivation, setting- before the story can really get going. She also blames the writers' desire to cover up slow starters by giving too much detail up front. Both of these tactics bog down the story- not good when you're trying to get a reader hooked. And that's the thing about beginnings. It doesn't matter if it's a friend, an agent, or a stranger- you want them to pick up your story, skim the first few lines, and find it difficult to pull their eyes away. I'm beginning to think that my story doesn't do that.

Take, for example, the beginning of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan:
Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burnt again. Every shovelful was an agony- the old man, getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory.
This opening plunks us in the middle of the action; it also tells us volumes about the speaker. The fact that he's digging his own father's grave is enough to get you interested. But besides that, the reader is shown Jamie's detached feelings towards his father, his light but bitter tone, the hardship of his current position in life, and the aching desire to forget. Tension. Backstory. Character. All without once slowing down the story.

I've found plenty of suggestions for how to make sure your story starts where it should. Someone suggested that the 'moment of change' is the best place to start, or by opening with a scene that serves as a kind of case study for what is wrong with a character's life. But that leaves me wondering how a reader can appreciate the significance of that change if they don't know anything about the character it's happening to?

One writer advised cutting your prologue and first chapter, then manually circling the crucial things in it that readers needed to know and threading that information into the rest of the story. Readers aren't dumb- they'll pick backstory up as they go along, as long as you're skilled enough to thread it in. That, to me, seems like the trick here: to thread all of that crucial backstory into the ongoing story in a way that keeps the plot ever moving. Terry Brooks said something along the lines of 'nothing starts at the beginning- everything starts in the middle of something, so do yourself and your readers a service and start in the middle of something interesting.'

I've read a lot of advice along the lines of 'when editing, focus on the story your readers want to enjoy- not the story you wrote to get to know your characters'. I suppose, since this was my first shot at a novel, I never thought of those two as mutually exclusive. I assumed that readers would want, even need, those pages of character building in order to appreciate the drama that comes next. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the wisdom there. First drafts are about finding the story. It's like treasure hunting, really. You to dig through lots of literary dirt before you get to the heart of the story you're trying to tell.

For me, the crucial question is this: is the first seven pages of my manuscript just so much literary dirt? Or is it necessary, interesting context? Where does my story actually begin?

In an earnest attempt to answer this question, I'm attaching the beginning of Spellbound below (I know it's full of cliches and too much description and slightly stilted dialogue. Ignore it for me, mmmK?). If any of you feel inclined to cast your eyes over my current beginning, all I want to know is this: when, for you, does it start to get interesting? Where do you think my story begins?

I heard it before we turned the corner: the familiar crank and rattle of rusty rides, the tinny plinking of the merry-go-round. I could smell the sickly-sweet cotton candy, almost taste it on the moist twilit air. The Summer Carnival was spinning to life behind our high school, filling the growing dark with happy shouts and jeers. The happy crowd buzzed and hummed by the ticket booth, laughing their oh-so-familiar laughs. I fought the urge to turn around and go home.

It wasn’t that I was entirely unsociable- I just understood what I was heading towards. My entire school would be there, all four hundred and eighty two of us, picking like carrion birds over who had changed two months into summer break. In teenage time, two months could make or break you: new muscles and a good tan could get you an all-expenses-paid trip into a new life. Summer hadn’t gifted me with anything to shout about: just bigger feet and a fresh patch of pimples. I was still an unimpressive, scrawny 5’9. Carnival was a glaring reminder of how much everything hadn’t changed.

“Come on, Jack, quit dragging your goofy feet,” Spence called.

I lengthened my stride to try and catch up with him. Keeping up with Spencer was becoming a challenge. His legs had stretched out like rubber bands, pushing him into another stratosphere. Hard labor on his family’s farm had given him biceps and bulked-up shoulders. Standing next to him all night wasn’t going to do me any favors. We snaked through the line at the front entrance, the music getting louder with every step we took.

“Time to check out the fresh meat!” Spencer said, spreading his hands out as if surveying an untouched buffet. “There’s going to be some prize pickings coming up this year. You know that little redhead who had gym with us in eighth?”

“The Langley girl? She’s, like, twelve years old.”

“Untrue. Tracy’s fourteen, going on available. You’ve got to get them young before the Big Dumb Football Animals.”

“Honestly, Spence,” I laughed. “Standards.”

Once we’d bought our tickets, we made our way to the crowded, dusty strip of grass that ran down the Carnival’s spine. The sun slipped down behind the hills, dragging the humidity in its wake like a cloak. The tops of the bigger tents and food stalls were black outlines against the orange sky. Families were heading home to their beds, kids wilted over their shoulders like sacks full of flour. I recognized every one of them as they passed, even some of the relatives that had come in from the next town over. Our town was that depressingly small. You were constantly surrounded by the same faces, circling around you like bad TV reruns.

I surveyed the crowd as it thinned out, leaving my classmates behind. The Carnival was about to become their personal playground; I could feel the knowledge spreading outwards like a fog. The Big Dumb Animals had begun to prowl, looking in their red and black Hominy Hummingbirds jerseys like a pack of slithering eels. Girls gathered in laughing herds, plucking fussily at short skirts. They weaved in and out of sight around us, making me feel strangely boxed in, despite the crowd’s thinning. As we made our way past a line of brightly-lit games stalls, a group of sophomore girls floated by us. Marjorie Allen batted her large, startled-looking eyes at us. The spillover happening at the top of her shirt made my cheeks feel warm.

“Hey, Spence,” she said, gazing at him over her shoulder.

“Hey, Beautiful,” he called after her. “You going to ride with me on the Wheel later, or what?”

“If you’re lucky,” she said. The other girls giggled, then huddled together.

Spence turned on me and frowned.

“Why didn’t you say anything to Jenny?”

“Who, Jenny Morris?” I said.

“Um, yeah,” Spence said, giving me his oh-Jack you idiot face. “She’s staring at you like she’s thinking of unhinging her jaw and swallowing you.”

I used my sleeve to wipe at my glasses, which had picked up a film of reddish dust. They were goofy and old-fashioned, but I couldn’t afford contacts and was halfway blind without them. I pushed them up my nose and looked at the girls again. Jenny was definitely looking in our direction, but not at me. I was probably blocking her view of someone else.

“Don’t think so. I appreciate the optimism, though.”

“What am I going to do with you?” Spence said. “I’m never going to find you a girl when you insist on being hopeless.”

I was uncomfortable with what I knew were the beginnings of a familiar argument, so I groped for something to distract him. It didn’t prove all that hard.

“So, you’re into Marjorie now? I thought you liked Janet?”

“Who says I’m not allowed to like both? Did you see Marjorie’s assets?” Spence held his hands out in front of his chest as if clutching two invisible gourds. “A man can’t ignore that kind of treasure.”

I let Spence go on as we walked down the dusty strip, comparing Marjorie’s assets to those of the hundred other girls that Spencer flirted with, nodding periodically. We worked our way around the merry-go-round. The colored lanterns hanging above us cast us all in a fog of red and blue.

We’d made our way to the Carnival’s heart, which was lined with small tents and game stalls. I saw Rob Bowman and the rest of his set standing by the duck shooting range, talking to a couple of freshman. I instinctively peeled the other way, around a strength-weighing machine and out of his line of sight. I hated myself for it, but that didn’t stop me from doing it. I headed for one of the less crowded laneways and waited for Spence to catch up to me before I started walking on. He gave me a questioning look, but said nothing.

“Hey, this one’s new,” Spence said, pulling up short.

We stopped in front of a dark green tent whose flaps were closed, unlike the others. There was a wooden sign above the entrance scrawled with ornate gold lettering- ‘Rosemary’s Tarot Readings: $10’. Spence was looking at me with that glitter in his eyes that meant trouble.

“No freaking way, Spence.”

“Come on! It’ll be funny.” He nudged me in the ribs. “Don’t you want to know your future?”

“From someone who relies on a deck of cards to make major life decisions? I’ll pass.”

“Come on,” Spence said, wagging his eyebrows. “I want to know whether Marjorie’s worth the effort.”

“Remind me why we’re friends again?” I said.

“Because without me, you’d lose the will to live.”

I blew out a frustrated breath, which we both knew was just for show.

“Fine, but you’re paying,” I said.

Spence smiled and pulled back the tent flap.

A thick cloud of incense assaulted my nostrils from the depths of the close, cave-like space. Lit candles covered every surface, making it feel church-like, almost like a shrine. A woman in a dark Renaissance-style dress sat behind a velvet-draped table. Her dark green eyes were huge and cat-like. They looked me over as if deciding whether I was worth the effort it would take to digest me.

“Welcome, boys,” she said, her voice dripping with practiced smoothness. “Which of you will be going first?”

“He will,” Spence said, shoving me forward. I glared back at him. He had his hands out in a gesture that I assumed was meant to stop me from fleeing. I sat down, crossing my arms across my chest.

“Welcome, my child,” she said, shuffling a stack of cards against her palm.

I wondered if I could bail out without being blatantly rude. I studied the woman’s cakey makeup, the grin so hard it looked as if it would shatter her cheeks, and felt instantly on guard. What kind of a name was Rosemary, anyway? She must have figured that something from the spice rack would make her sound more authoritative.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Rosemary said, “we’ll begin.”

“Alright,” I mumbled. I heard Spence chuckle behind me and I cursed myself for being such a pushover.

Rosemary laid three cards face down on the table. “Each one represents a different chapter of your life,” she said. “One is your past, one your present, one your future.” She pointed at the cards in turn with purple, talon-like nails. “We’ll flip them over one at a time and see what they have to reveal.”



  1. As someone who is totally e-literate when it comes to writing I looooove the beginning, you can almost smell the teen anxt in the air. Spencer is right up my alley and I know he is prob written just for me and my hobby of collecting BDAs ;)
    I think the juice begins with the introduction of Rosemary. I think its important to set the stasis of the world you are introducing the reader into, and in my (un-edumacated) opinion I wouldnt rush into the meat of the story too fast.

  2. I think your critique partner was right. It's a lovely scene and all but it isn't a good opener for your book. You can get away with this level of characterisation and description later on, when we are already invested in your story.

    The main problem is that nothing really happens. I agree with above, that things start getting interesting with the introduction of Rosemary.

    I understand exactly where you are coming from with this - I cut most of my first chapter when I re-wrote my novel, and while it was painful it was necessary.

    Good luck!