I admire Tupac's writing, and I have had those glorious moments where the world dissolves around me and I'm in the writing zone. More often though, I've found myself in Thomas Edison's camp. Writing, like genius, is more perspiration than divine inspiration, and nothing requires more work than a good beginning.
Do you read the first page of a book before you decide to buy it or check it out of the library? Without a recommendation from someone whose taste I trust, I do. Either the writer is going to hook me right away, or I’m going to choose something else. I might miss a few good stories, but usually, a meandering opening is the beginning of a meandering plot.
Rooting around in my old files, I found a story I wrote in 2002. The title was “Jumping Rails,” and honestly, the beginning wasn’t good. I described the weather. It was raining.
It was raining outside again. For almost a week now, it had been dark and dreary. The only variation in the weather had been in the intensity of the rain. Yesterday’s cold drizzle had become today’s blinding downpour. Abby peered out of the store’s plate glass window, but could see no farther than the edge of the sidewalk. There was nothing to see anyway. No one was coming out in this mess.
Good ole mood-setting description. If it’s done well, it can work, but honestly, this is meh. The problem here is that not only does nothing happen, but we also get no sense of who Abby is. A beginning should draw you into the story immediately. All we have here is a girl staring into the rain.
I wrote this story for a creative writing class, and when I started, I was drawing a blank, so I described the rain. I do this a lot actually. I describe my way into a story, establishing setting, mood and character until I find a plot thread to follow. My beginnings change dramatically during the revision process, and this story clearly needs more work.
Sometimes I don’t find a plot thread, or I hit a dead end. My files are littered with false starts. I got 15,000 words into Wish Fulfillment before becoming hopelessly stuck.
Rose stared at the clock on the wall. It mocked her, refusing to move. Maybe the batteries were dead. Maybe the gears had frozen. Maybe time had stopped, and she would be trapped in her cubicle forever, locked with her computer in a 3x2 teal fabric prison cell.
Her computer chimed, interrupting her macabre fantasy and informing her she had a new email. She clicked it open and winced. Shit. Rose had promised Solomon a week ago she would have lunch with him, but she had put him off several times since then, citing work as an excuse.
He was apparently tired of her excuses.
Even unedited, this is better than the first example. I’ve included mood-setting description, but it’s interwoven with characterization and a bit of the conflict is introduced immediately.
The opening to Sapphire Sins got full manuscript requests and ultimately an agent.
The rickety staircase spiraled down into the gloom. Diana hesitated. Heading deeper into the darkness seemed foolish now. She glanced over her shoulder at the exit and considered slipping back through it. The crisp night air beckoned, the lights of Manhattan tantalizingly close on the other side of the river. Those lights might as well have been 1,000 miles away.
Her pursuer lurked somewhere in the maze of old warehouses. His soft laughter had echoed between the abandoned buildings, an acoustic anomaly making it seem as though he was right beside her. She shivered at the memory, grateful now for the darkness.
Discretion is the better part of valor, Di. Hide until morning.
Mood setting description, characterization, conflict and action make an appearance in the first three paragraphs. I lost count of how many times I rewrote them. I do remember the first incarnation was a long paragraph juxtaposing the rickety staircase against the lights of Manhattan. I knew my heroine was being chased, but I didn’t know her yet, and I didn’t know who she was running from and why. Once I answered those questions, I eliminated the blind searching I was doing on the page and moved the story forward.
The first two paragraphs of my untitled WIP contain…you guessed it…mood-setting description.
The dim light of the bar suited her. The corner table suited her even more. She was virtually invisible, drinking her margarita rocks in almost solitude.
Almost solitude was perfect, exactly what she wanted. She could sling back tequila, triple sec, and a smidge of sweet flavoring and convince herself she wasn’t drinking alone without the bother of conversing with actual people.
I realize this is my fall back position when I start a story. I’m not concerned at this point, though. I have a firm grasp on the plot thread, and I’m making forward progress. When I have a completed draft, I’ll circle back around and rewrite it. Starting strong is so much easier when you know where the finish line is.
Guess which part of this blog post I wrote last? Yep...the first three paragraphs.