If you’re a regular reader here, you know I’m returning from a couple of weeks off—productive time, in terms of author events and family gatherings, and also for my novel in progress, though I worked on it only during the first leg of my journey (when you fly to and from Alaska, there’s plenty of flight time).
When you’re starting a book, there’s a tricky balance of forging ahead and holding back, to make sure you’re on the right path - a little herky-jerky that benefits the book, if we’re willing to ride it out. In the case of my work in progress (WIP), I’d gotten to know my characters, and I had a fair idea of what would happen, since it’s a crime novel loosely based on an actual case. I’d written about 6000 words, a good number of them at 35,000 feet, between Alaska and Minneapolis.
But something felt off.
The distractions that hit once the jet landed were a good thing. By the time I got home, it was clear to me what was wrong with my beginning and how I should fix it—by starting over.
BIC (butt in chair) is good advice for beginning your book; you can’t begin unless you, well . . .start. But if that’s all you do—sit yourself down and write and write some more and some more and some more, hoping that what comes out will please readers, or at least have the potential to be revised into something pleasing, you risk completing a manuscript that goes nowhere in terms of viable readership.
Here, four tips for beginning your book:
· Develop an instinct for false starts: Your beginning, as author David Vann says, should be like a train on the tracks, promising an unforgettable journey. The stakes must be high, the narrator engaging, the potential for complications like a fire smoldering from the start. As an author, your challenge is to not let such demands paralyze you. Get your beginning chapter or two on the page, then come back at it, objectively. True beginning or false start? If it’s false, play book doctor: diagnose where the story sags. Maybe you need a new protagonist (I did) or an entirely different premise, one that’s more unique and engaging than the one you began with.
· Begin elsewhere: Nothing says you have to begin at the beginning. Write your ending first, or a scene from the middle. Write a few scenes, using characters and plot twists so diverse that you can’t possible use them all. The idea is not to produce material that finds its way into the book, but to free you from thinking that every word you write is destined for the world . Don’t beg off with complaints about time—in mere minutes, you can draft a scene, or part of a scene. You’ll know when you’ve hit on something worth pursuing—you’ll get excited to find out what happens next.
· Understand that nothing is wasted: Don’t berate yourself for false starts; congratulate yourself for recognizing them. False starts are ways to learn about your book—the shape it’s trying to take, and the ways you need to get out of the way and quit forcing the story. Give yourself permission to fail—that’s what drafts are all about—and applaud the ways you learn from your mistakes.
· Acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with a restart: On the first Saturday of every March, the world’ most famous sled dog race starts on the streets of my hometown of Anchorage. It’s a ceremonial start, with everything looking pretty and polished. The real start comes the next day, north of town, on a windswept lake, fitting for the journey ahead, which demands grit and courage from every participant, human and canine. Book beginnings are like that: the first runs tend to be pretty and over-written, with too much self-conscious drama. Yes, you want the reader’s attention. But even more, your beginning needs to set up a narrative that won’t let up till the end—in terms of action, yes, but also character, emotions, stakes, all of it.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, her views here are her own.