"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Right Place to Start Your Book

Note: This post first appeared on the Blue Sage Writers blog on January 14, 2010.

A good hook is essential to any book, but a terrific first line, first paragraph, or even first page won't save a story that begins in the wrong place. Neither is anything more disappointing to a reader who bought a book based on that terrific hook, only to find the story fading away after a few pages or chapters. (I won't get into the burning question as to why such a book was published in the first place. That's fodder for another blog.)

A book will sometimes cover the entire life of your main character from birth to death. That doesn't mean you should start it when the character emerges from the womb. More often than not, a story will be only a brief span of time in a character's life–a few days, weeks, or months. Hopefully, you have chosen that time frame because something is about to happen that will change your character's life forever. It will be a turning point. Don't wait until page 100 to start this moment of change. Starting a story too soon, or too late, will result in weighty narrative and flashbacks that will slow your story to a crawl. You'll get lost, confused, discouraged and might even give up on the book entirely. Chances are, if it isn't working for you, as the writer, then you haven't found that moment of change and the best way to present it.

The scene that you open your book with should set the stage for what is to follow, foreshadowing the direction the story will take. This beginning should make a promise to the reader that will be fulfilled at the end. In today's fast-paced world, the reader will want to immediately see the conflict that will be the crux of the story, and one that will be resolved. This opening scene should be one that encapsulates the theme, even if you only demur to it. The tone might even hint at an array of outcomes that will entice the reader on.

It is also important before you write one word, that you know where your character has been, where he is going, and how he will get there. You need to know your ending before you can craft a truly effective beginning.

Even though you might have a great hook that won "The Best Hook" in some nationwide writer's contest, if you can't keep the momentum going, you haven't started your story in the right place.

Here is a wonderful beginning from Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new book, The Angel's Game. See if this draws you into the story and then ask yourself if he has foreshadowed, promised, offered conflict and motivation, hinted at a theme as well as the sense that the character, who we meet in the next paragraph, is about to face the moment that will change his life forever.

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he coverts the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

For the New Year and the Long Haul

As we start a new year, we all have resolutions. A very common resolution is to ditch the candy, pies, cakes, and cookies that surreptitiously attached themselves to our waists, bellies, hips, and thighs during the Christmas season. As writers, or anyone who spends a lot of time at the computer, it's important to take good care of our backs, eyes, and muscles. If you're in your twenties or thirties, you might not be experiencing problems, but by the time you spend thirty years at a computer, trust me, you will.

This year you might want to take a ten-minute break at least once an hour to give your body and eyes a break. Stretch, walk around, look out the window at something far away in the distance. Don't let a minor annoyance, like a sore back, or that tingle in your fingers, go unattended. It could become severe, even incapacitating. I know how easy it is to get caught up in a story or a book deadline and before you know it the entire day has passed and you haven't moved from your computer (except to grab a cola and a few cookies to tide you over until dinner). But this year, resolve to take better care of yourself for the long haul so you will still be able to write those wonderful stories when you're eighty.