Let’s start at the very beginning

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Recently, I started my new novel. It’s taken several hours, but I have the best part of the first chapter written. My task for next week will be to decide how many of those words I actually keep. My estimate is, less than a quarter. You’d think that, with a head teeming with plots and scenes and characters that never leave me alone, not even when I’m asleep, starting something wouldn’t be such a very difficult thing to do. After all, you just gather those imaginative thoughts together and away you go; Bob’s your Uncle; Charlie’s your Aunt and all other such sayings that no one really understands. But, you know what I’ve found out? I’ve found out that the start isn’t always the very best place to begin …

My first manuscript, installment number one of a trilogy (currently languishing alone on a pen drive, hoping for the still unwritten partners that will make it whole) took me over three years to complete. From first to last draft, the changes are astonishing. In fact, from a less than cursory glance from one to the other, you could be forgiven for thinking they were two completely different novels. So what happened? Too many ideas, that’s what happened. And I didn’t have the experience or self-discipline to say: Now, I know you are a very good idea, but you don’t belong in this story. So, for now, I’m going to file you under ‘Ideas; other’. What happened was that I gorged on good ideas and tried to stuff as many of them as I could into my plot. Result? I proved the truth of that worn out cliché that too much of a good thing can be very bad for you. Especially if you’re an overfed novel who doesn’t know its beginning from its middle from its end.

My second novel fared better. I’d learned from my mistakes. So, when I began to write and quickly realised that the beginning wasn’t actually the beginning, I was perfectly happy for it to shift positions. That meant hitting the delete button on a few of my favourite things, but sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. (Don’t you hate it when a cliché turns out to be right. Again?) ‘Strong as Death’ was the result of this process and, although I wrote in a more or less linear way, it wasn’t always a very straight line.

My third novel, currently in the final editing stage, had an opening chapter that went more or less according to plan and which has changed very little with subsequent redrafts. But the way I kept control of the writing process for the rest of the novel meant that, in order for the pieces to fit together, I had to be prepared to leave some sections for a while whilst I wrote others. It was a bit like braiding hair, where some strands have to be held in a waiting position until their turn comes to be woven into the final pattern. One minute, it can all look a bit of a mess, the next, voilà! C’est fini!

So, my latest novel. The one I started this week. The one whose first chapter is almost complete. Though I love much of what I’ve written, it doesn’t belong in this tale. So, reminding myself that the beginning isn’t always the very best place to begin, delete button at the ready, ‘Ideas; other’ at hand, I have started bringing my strands into line. Irrelevant ideas, stand back and make way; the story weaving is about to commence!

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6 thoughts on “Let’s start at the very beginning

  1. I’ve found that not only with novels, but short stories too; the first ‘beginning’ is not the beginning at all. My technique for writing short stories changed when I discovered this by accident.
    I now get the story written rapidly and then go through on my first or second read-through looking for a catchy intro. My golden rule is to have the hook within about 30 words – and that really works. I’ve extended the early hook theory to my novel writing too.

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  2. I read somewhere once that, when writing a short story, after the first draft, delete the first paragraph. I haven’t written many short stories, but that advice seemed to work well for me. I think that, as far as this new novel goes, that may apply to the whole first chapter. Sometimes, I think of the bits I delete are like scaffolding – needed to support the building at first, but surplus to requirements once it takes on the strength and form of the finished structure.

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