On Novel Beginnings

I hate beginnings.

Whenever I contemplate beginning a new MS, I always feel as apprehensive and doubtful as I did when I contemplated when and how to jump into the swiftly swinging jump ropes for Double Dutch. With Double Dutch, I usually forced the turners to stop and let me start the jumping inside of the ropes. Ironically, it was when I tried to start double dutch the easy way, I’d always get tangled in the ropes, and the few times where I gathered enough courage to jump in with the ropes already swinging, I’d do pretty good.

But I digress.

I’ve always envied authors who can start a book with a witty one-liner (“Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society’s stamp of approval. Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding.” *) or with an elegant, scene-setting, character-revealing turn of phrase (“The events that would drop Emma Hotchkiss–verily sink, she might have said–into a quagmire of sin and crime began on the first sunny day she’d seen in a week as she galumphed gracelessly across a green Yorkshire field in the vicar’s unbuckled muck boots.” *).

Granted, it may have taken countless rewrites and revisions to wrestle those opening lines out of their fingertips, but the heart of the matter is that I obsess and stress over opening the book justright more than I do over any other part of writing a book! Even more stressful is that I dream endlessly of my MSS before I sit down to write them, and getting the words to match the vision in my head is like chipping away at a huge block of marble with the world’s tiniest hammer and chisel.

To combat my time-wasting efforts to perfect this one part of novel writing, I’ve devised a few tactics (brain tricks) that keep me from banging my head against my keyboard.

One is to write an incredibly detailed synopsis from start to finish. I consider this my “zero draft,” because I’m essentially getting the book out of my head without worrying over word count or prose. From there, I can see where I want to take my characters and chart the progression of their story arc, which then allows me to pinpoint what I want to convey with the opening line. The other tactic is somewhat similar to the first one, but is less pre-planned. I forget where I picked this up–possibly Edittorrent–but in short, I write down what I want to accomplish in the scene I am writing so I have a rough idea of the scene’s purpose. This in turn helps me pinpoint my opening and closing lines for each scene, since a scene is comprised of a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s breaking writing down into bite-sized chunks that help me build the MS brick by boring brick (™ Paramore) as opposed to viewing its construction as one long vista of undefined work!

Author: Evangeline Holland

Evangeline is a public historian who brings her academic skills to fiction, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Her love for history permeates just about everything she does, going so far as to "suffer" for this love--as the bruises and stuck fingers from fencing and sewing costumes to understand life in the past firsthand can attest.

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