I’m thinking a lot about beginnings here at the end of 2009, with the new year set to roll in in just a few hours. Story beginnings, that is.

It took me a long time to find the beginning of Kindred. I wrote a good portion of the novel before I figured out where it actually began. I made two or three false starts before I settled on the opening chapter that currently resides on my hard drive (and the desks of several agents).

With Willa, I had a very clear picture of the opening scene, inspired in part by the photo that serves as my desktop wallpaper. You can find it here.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled over the opening chapters of Willa. Mostly with the pacing. It’s so easy to second guess. Some writers write down the bones of their story in their first draft. I need to spill out everything, bones, blood, and vital organs. Absolutely everything I think might even possibly need to be in the story. By the end I generally know what’s story muscle, and what’s needless padding, or an extra limb or two. (Next time I’ll find a more attractive analogy!). It’s not the tidiest, most economical way to go about this storytelling thing, but so far it’s been my way no matter how I’ve tried to employ other methods. What can you do?

Here’s a few quotes from other writers, about novel openings:

Blaise Pascal: The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first.

Gustave Flaubert: I am finding it very hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head.

Anthony Trollope: Perhaps the method of rushing at once ‘in medias res’ is, of all the ways of beginning a story… the least objectionable. The reader is made to think the gold lies so near the surface that he will be required to take very little trouble in digging for it.

J.R.R. Tolkien: I find it only too easy to write opening chapters–and at the moment the story is not unfolding. I squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world.  (Oh Professor, I’m SO glad you kept looking!)

Graham Greene: The beginning of a book holds more apprehensions for the novelist than the ending. After living with a book for a year or two, he has come to terms with his unconsciousness–the end will be imposed. But if a book is started in the wrong way, it may never be finished.

Joan Aiken: Such a sentence makes you hear the sound of books slapping shut all over the library. (of the opening sentence of Ivanhoe)

Michael Ondaatje: The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’   (I love this. If this is what I sense in the opening lines of a book, resting solidly behind whatever the actual words are, then that author has me hooked)

And the classic Lewis Carroll : “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Happy 2010. May we finish what we begin!

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