The end of the beginning

This blog entry will teach you how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies.

That got your attention, didn’t it? Because that’s the conventional writing wisdom, isn’t it? It’s number one on the list of commandments issued by every creative writing class you will ever take, every book about writing you will ever read. Thou shalt write a killer first line.

This blog entry isn’t really about how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies. It’s about how we writers sometimes take the first commandment too literally, become fixated on that first couple of dozen words, and then fall into the trap of thinking a killer first line buys us some leeway with readers.

This is, of course, completely wrong. The first line is only the most important line until you get to the second line, and the second line is only the most important line until you get to the third, and so on. You don’t have much leeway with readers at all. There is really only one commandment – keep the reader reading. And that’s just as important in the eight hundredth sentence of your story as the first. Perhaps more so. Novels rarely lose me in the first sentence (one of my favourites, Les Miserables, has a pretty terrible first line), but fifty pages in, if I’m not yet committed to finishing the thing, there’s every chance I probably won’t.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately because I’ve been working on two of them simultaneously. My children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane, has been going through final edits, and I am currently revising the beginning of my latest work-in-progress after receiving some fantastic advice from the literary agent I recently signed with.

I tell people that The Thieves of Pudding Lane only went through two drafts, though if I want to make a joke of it, I say it went through two and a half. And, beginning to end, that’s true. Beginning to just-after-the-beginning, however, it went through a dozen drafts, a dozen literal false starts where I realised it wasn’t working and started again from scratch.

In the very first draft, I detailed the main character Samuel’s journey across London to the Old Bailey courthouse. It was full of lovely descriptions of the city and included prose I would still be proud of today. But I knew something was wrong. At one point I even fell into the trap of getting fixated on the first sentence, so threw in some desperate and inconsequential threat by having Samuel sit in a boat that’s rocking a bit too roughly as it crosses the River Thames…

That scene, that subplot, indeed the entire character relationship underpinning that beginning, no longer features in the story in any form. But I wasn’t to know that would be the case at the time, a point I’ll come back to later.

Many drafts later I was sure I had nailed it. I had written a dramatic opening chapter in which Samuel’s father throws him out of the house in the middle of the night because Samuel’s mother has become sick with Plague. An editor liked the beginning enough to request the rest of the book, and then make me an offer for it.

And then she cut out that chapter in its entirety.

And the story works better because of it. Because a scene, a character or a twist might be what starts us writing a story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best place for a reader to start reading it. Everything that happened in that prologue is covered elsewhere in the story. My novel is not about how Samuel became an orphan on the streets of London in 1666, it’s about what he does and what happens to him afterwards. The prologue was just set-up, and set-up always, always has an addiction to killing the pace of your story. My beginning is now shorter, faster paced and, ultimately, better.

I always like to view editors as teachers rather than critics, so I told myself I had learnt my lesson and would not make the same mistake with the beginning of my next project. And I didn’t. I made a completely different one.

My current work-in-progress originally started with the main character, a teenage girl, learning her mum has died (it’s a bit of a common theme, I know). Before she has time to process that, however, she quickly learns several terrible truths about other people she knows.

The beginning is fast paced, was the verdict from everyone who read it at the literary agency who took it on, but at the expense of really, truly connecting emotionally with all the characters before they descend into their terrible ordeal. In my first draft we never met the girl’s mum before she died – she was just this abstract concept of ‘mother’. So from having the beginning cut from one story I went to being asked to write a new, longer opening for this one! And, as with The Thieves of Pudding Lane, once it was done, I saw it was the right thing to do, and couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

At the risk of sounding like some hippie writing guru for a moment, you should take a holistic approach to beginning your story. Don’t view it as some separate part of your story that needs to be given special attention, above and beyond what you give the rest of the story. Everything that happens at the beginning must have a direct impact on everything that happens in the rest of the story, not just in terms of character and plot but pace, setting, tone and other elements too.

For this reason, if you’re worrying about your beginning, my advice would be: don’t. Don’t get caught up on writing a perfect beginning at the expense of not writing the perfect middle and perfect ending. Indeed, get to the end, look back at your story from there, and you might well find your perfect beginning waiting for you, wondering how on earth you missed it at the start.

UPDATE: the excised prologue was later reinstated in the final version. Make of that – and what it means for everything I’ve said in this blog – what you will!

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