Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Killing Beguiling Beginnings - How to give your story a fresh start

Beginnings are treacherous. The requirements are high (introduce characters, present the setting, put forth a story question, hook the reader, engage with a distinct voice). After the first 20 pages, for many unpublished works that I’ve read, the author settles into a groove where the story is working. And often just cutting those early pages allows readers to connect with the story in the best place.

The problem — what makes things treacherous — is finding the exact right place to cut, making the revisions that keep the amputation from being obvious, and (most importantly) the author reconciling him/herself to saying goodbye to those first pages.

It is often the first pages that charmed the writer into working on the story to begin with. They often are the most familiar, most worked-over pages in the whole manuscript. And, somehow, they feel necessary.

I have been reading Val McDermid’s Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, there’s a crime scene investigator featured who gathers the information, sits with it, and then generates a narrative on what might have happened. What follows for her is analysis and a set of test questions. When she has gone through these steps, what she has may fit the intuitive leap. But, when the pieces don’t come together, she abandons that narrative. There’s no revision, no force-fitting, no fixes. I was captivated by that. What if you could have evidence that your beginning wasn’t working and then have no hesitation in making cuts and coming up with something new?

This is pertinent to me since I have a beginning that has gotten the same criticisms from two readers, and it is difficult for me to abandon it. But something tells me, it’s time to see where trying something new might lead me, so I’ll take a fresh approach.

It’s painful, but less hard for me than many writers because I can put together a new beginning in a day or two. And I know I can always go back to the beginning I have now. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

So, if you have a completed story and have doubts about a beginning that has charmed you, try this:
  1. Find the climax or the story’s point of highest emotion or the thematic scene of your story. You should be able to fall in love with it so that the beginning can be bent to make it better. This is your reason for trying something new.
  2. Assume the evidence doesn’t fit the beginning, and drop it (at least for the moment) the way the crime scene investigator drops her intuitive narratives, without regrets.
  3. Brainstorm alternative beginnings until you find one that you connect with viscerally. If one doesn’t pop out, think toward reflecting as aspect of your big scene in step one or toward an image that might communicate your story.
  4. Write the scene without worrying about what readers need to know or hooks or introductions or any other required elements.
If you end up with something that mostly works and gets you started on a better beginning, congratulations. Now it’s a matter of gently fitting it into place with the rest of the story. Sometimes, the most important thing is to avoid too many changes (especially adding in material). Sometimes, that means a complete revision. Sometimes, it leads to combining the new beginning with the old one. Sometimes, it takes you in a new direction. But it’s worth it because you’ll be led toward the beginning the story needs and away from the weaker one that infatuates you.

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