Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writing 101: When to Start Your Story

If you're a reader of this blog then you know I am currently working on editing an MS.  I'm not really enjoying the process, but mainly because I wrote this story with very little planning and as a result I've got lots of stuff to fix. But that isn't the point of today's post.  Today I want to discuss an ongoing debate in my head of when my story really starts.

Unfortunately, like so many other technical aspects of writing, the pros are divided on the issue.  Some think your book needs to start off with your best stuff to create a big bang effect.  Others think this can only cause disappointment in your readers since no one can maintain that level of excitement through out an entire book. With everything else, the choice is really ours to make as the writers.

For me, part of the decision was easy.  When I started writing this MS I gave my main character weeks of back story before anything interesting happened.  I wrote about her friends, her old room, the drive up north, towel shopping for her new bathroom, and my personal favorite a driving tour of her new town.

At the time, I thought all this information was crucial.  And I was right.  But it was only crucial for me, as the writer.  All that information helped create what I hope is a fascinating character.  But the readers don't really need to know that my character chose a chocolate/blue theme for her bathroom.

So when I sat down to start editing I recognized immediately that the first 6,000 or so words had to go.  Without the slightest bit of remorse I took them out.  Of course I saved them in my cuts document so I could re-use some of the tastier morsels later.

With weeks of minutia gone I was feeling pretty good about the beginning of my novel.  I polished up the first chapter and posted the first five pages to YALITCHAT (an unbelievably helpful resource if you write MG/YA books).  The reviews gave me some wonderful feedback and after cutting a few more paragraphs I was settled on my opening.

As I posted my final revision I expected the results to come back with heaps of praise for my shiny pages.  I was wrong.  Instead I got one final review who felt I was still starting my story too early.  Crushing defeat!

I went back to the story and took another look at what I had.  But this time, I was really torn about cutting out more story.  What I had contained all kinds of good stuff.  It set up setting and basic plot.  It introduced fun characters and created the mood.  In my heart, this is where I want to start my story.

My first reaction was to dismiss this review.  After all, it was only one person's opinion. This was my story and I would write it however I wanted to.  But then I smacked myself until I remembered that critiques should help us grow as writers.  So even if I didn't agree completely with this critiques opinion, was there something I could learn?

Yes!  I still liked WHEN my story started, but I could improve HOW it started.  After yet another look I realized I was wasting valuable space and limited reader attention grabbing time with useless details.  In fact, there was an entire conversation in there that didn't need to be.  Sure, it gave the reader info, but that same info could be provided somewhere else in a place that doesn't slow down the tempo.  For everything the first few pages accomplished, it didn't have much tension or drama.  Considering this book is YA, leaving out drama in the first few pages is a major oversight.  Teens are all about the drama.

So here I am writing the intro to my novel . . . again.  I've lost count how many versions I've been through.  But this time I am going to focus less on when the novel starts and more on how to capture my readers.  And not just in the beginning, but through the whole darn thing. 

Do you struggle with when and how to open your books?  What tips and tricks do you have? 


  1. I'm with you Sarah, it ok forever to get the opening chapters for my MS. I found that I wrote them in the early days of my writing and I was convinced they were the bomb....so sorry to those who had to read them three years ago!

    I wrote the middle and ending after I gained much experience, thanks YaLitChat. Now when editing and rewriting those chapters there isn't much to do, as I'd made all mistakes in the beginning!
    Take your time, you'll get there and appreciate every word you wrote. Publishing will always be here, it'll wait for us to, however long it takes!

  2. Thanks, Adrienne. That's what I love about YaLitChat. You have the freedom to throw your priceless junk at everyone and they help you become a better writer.

  3. I like to start just before something changes for the MC. It keeps you from beginning with backstory or other info the reader really doesn't need. Good luck!

  4. I often cut the first chapter or two in the process of revision. Start right after that "line is drawn in the sand" which propels your tale into action. Your instincts sound good to cut, cut, cut.

  5. It's a good thing to remember that the only thing you can't fix is a blank page. We're not married to any part of our story, so it can be changed, cut, chucked--whatever--and still come out as gold later!


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