Saturday, April 4, 2009

Once upon a time, there was a frog...

I'm beginning the draft of a new short story this morning (no, alas, not a novel) and so, of course, I'm thinking about beginnings. As writers, we all know how important beginnings are. I think Begin strong! must be one of the top commandments, ranking right up there with Show, don't tell and Eliminate the unnecessary.

But as readers, we all know how deceptive beginnings can be. It's true.

I've read many a wonderful Chapter One, only to be bored by chapters two and three, and to finally set the book down in chapter four, never to pick it up again. This is a fairly common reading experience for me. It must be the same short attention span that makes novel-writing seem so daunting. But no matter how often I experience this, it's always unexpected and disappointing.

On the other hand, I just read a YA fantasy with (in my opinion) a very boring opening chapter. I stuck with it only because it's a well-known, popular book, with hundreds of raving reviews on Amazon. And yes, I admit, it did turn out to be all right, in spite of the lousy beginning.

But nota bene: that was a book by an established author. Those of us still working on our first novels, or working to be published in major markets, we have to be - dare I say it? - better than that. Yes, we do. Sad but true.

I've received lots of rejections over the years that said: This story didn't grab me, sorry. This, I think, is code for: I didn't read it, sorry. The lesson for writers is that no matter how intrigued we might be by our own characters and the narrative problems we create for them, it's obviously not so easy to command the attention of strangers. And with the first sentence, probably; with the first hundred words, certainly.

But I try and I try. So, for the curious, here they are: the far-from-final, first 97 words of today's draft of the new wip (Warning: it's sf)...

To my nephew Jor, in Imilor. Greetings from Alahadir, defender of the White Queen. Regarding the slander and lies that have long afflicted our family, and the even worse lies to come. What you and your mother need to know.

Dearest Jor, I’m transmitting this message through the d’Al-sahr tapis, that oldest and slowest and most neglected of routes, because it is the one least spied upon. The news – filled as it will be with the imposter’s lies – will reach you before my message does. This is unfortunate but certain.

Tonight is the night of my death.

Bah! Posted here, it already looks different to me, somehow less exciting than the Word document I've been looking at. Well, ta-ta to all for now - it's back to the drafting board for me.


  1. An interesting topic. I was going to post about this in the future. The main point is that as a beginning writer, the first chapter of your book has to be outstanding. I'll tell you why I think so in my next post.

  2. This topic is timely to me. In fact, I am posting something similar on my blog on Monday. I agree that the first chapter, even the first few paragraphs have to draw a reader in. And more than that, which I am glad you mentioned, the good writing and the good story has to continue beyond Chapter 1. For all of us unestablished writers, when we finally get our work into the hands of readers we have, have, have to make them want more.

  3. I like the start you provided. Why? Lots going on in not too many words. Now, I like the genre you are writing in. I'd read more and be interested to see how things play out.

    I'd hope the world would open up quickly; that I could start to see what everything looks like. I've heard it said that the number one reason people read fantasy is to experience a different world. Your opening makes good on that. It promises the reader that they will experience something new in terms of technology and the way the world works.

    Somehow the white queen reference did not play well with me because it felt too Narniaish. I love the Narnia tales, but the name felt like it had already been taken. Seems like a generic fairy tale name, and as fantasy reader I'd like something more. Some other way of referencing white would make me think ah this story is unique. So, in terms of openings, I'd say you are off to a good start because you offer something new, but you might want to rethink the word choice for referencing the queen, but that's just my opinion. Take it as you will.

  4. Dave, thanks for the input. I didn't think of the White Queen in this way, but now that you point it out, I do see what you mean. Hmmm... I'll have to work on a new name for her.

  5. i've been thinking this very thing: how can author x be so famous and so well-known if this is the kind of drivel s/he's writing? But then I go back and read the early works and I totally understand how s/he got published.

    it happens in reverse, as well. i remember thinking, after being thoroughly disappointed with sequel books as a child, that if i ever wrote books for a living that I would take just as much care with my subsequent books as I did with my breakout best seller :P harder said than done, i know...

    ps love the beginning; it's intriguing. i would definitely read more. i did have a similar yuck reaction to the White Queen, though. a sudden Disney-esque picture fluttered into my head :o

  6. Alex, you're right. If I'm unhappy with a piece of writing, because I know it's not particularly good, then really I don't want it published. I want readers to like what they read, and come back.


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