start me up

I've been thinking about beginnings. I just re-read my WIP (a book of Jan Sleet mysteries that is actually a "stealth novel") from (tentative) beginning to (tentative) end, and I made over 200 notes to myself.

One thing I think about is the beginning. The first story I wrote, "The Apartment Mystery," did not end up being the first story in the chronology (it's #4), but I've always felt it worked best as the first story for people to read.

On one hand, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories weren't chronological in any of the books. On the other hand, those books weren't stealth novels, and it will be the only one that's out of sequence.

Then Laura Stanfill wrote a post called, "Writing Challenge #10: Keep an Eye on Your First Chapter," about making sure, throughout the process of writing a book, that the first chapter is doing its job "setting up the story, setting and characters."

I also think about this in terms of Mindmistress, a web comic I've followed for almost ten years now. Al Schroeder is the artist, and he posts three pages a week. Over the years, his art has improved from this to this.

But he knows that people often start a story at the beginning (even a web comic where there are separate storylines and you can jump on later), so he's been going back and redrawing the panels of the very first story. Not the other early ones, but he knows the first chapter is especially important.

And there's also the example of The Sun Also Rises. F. Scott Fitzgerald read it before publication and told Hemingway to remove the first chapter completely and just start with Chapter Two. Hemingway agreed (he never forgave Fitzgerald for being right, though), and the beginning of the book is a classic ("Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton...."), almost as famous as the end ("Isn't it pretty to think so?").

A friend recommended Père Goriot by Balzac once. I read the first few pages, then I tossed it. It was all description of the house and grounds, no characters, no action, no hooks. This was not for me (there's a reason I don't subscribe to Architectural Digest).

Or you can read the beginning of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James to see how you can describe the setting and the characters all at once at the beginning of a book. It's a perfect beginning to a great novel..

But I am still convinced that "The Apartment Mystery" is doing its job. There's a lot of work yet to be done on the rest of the book, but I've made the edits to the first chapter, and here it is (or you can get a printable version here).

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6 Responses to start me up

  1. tpaulin says:

    I wasn’t very critical of opening sentences before I became a writer. Now when I see a bland sentence–one that could have come from any page of any ol’ book–I’m disappointed at the lost opportunity.

    Here are some examples of bad/cliched openings, none from actual books:

    – He woke up with a massive headache.

    – The sun was blah blah blah on the horizon.

    I could only make up two, because it pains me to write boring/generic openings. It’s so much more fun to write exciting opening sentences!

    – The dentist stuffed his mouth with mini marshmallows, the multi-colored ones.

    – Her auntie would have died on the spot if she’d seen what Treenie was shoplifting.

    – Every time I say I’m sorry, my mouth becomes smaller.


    I guess your post was more about the chapter and the general beginning, but I say start with a crackling first sentence!

  2. sonje says:

    I’m a little confused. So you wrote the very first story and then you wrote three stories that occurred before the first story, but you want to start the collection with the first story you wrote, now #4 chronologically. Do I have that right?

    I am thinking about beginnings a lot with my new WIP. As my “introduction” lingers for 15k, I’m wondering if it is doing it’s job or not. Or maybe I am misunderstanding what is “introduction” and what is “meat of story.” Well, I’ll worry about it later….

  3. Tamara: My opening sentences aren’t up to the standard of yours, but they are definitely better than your negative examples (one of them does feature somebody waking up, but she’s in an inexplicable situation and exciting stuff happens very quickly).

    I think my favorite opening sentence that I’ve used is in the school mystery, which starts with a quote from The Importance of Being Earnest: “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.”

    Now I’m hungry for marshmallows. 🙂

  4. Sonje: Yes, that’s it. When I wrote the first one (originally called “The U-town Murder Case” and now called “The Apartment Mystery”) I had no idea I’d ever write any more. I just thought Jan Sleet would like a regular, conventional mystery to solve.

    But I really enjoyed writing it, so I decided to write more. With three of them, it made more sense for them to happen before the apartment case, but they still read better coming after (as I say, that’s my current thinking). I’m sure many people won’t even notice, any more than they do with Sherlock Holmes.

    Even at that, the chronology is much simpler than the two novels. A Sane Woman spends most of its time going backwards (a day, the day before, three weeks before, twenty years before), and U-town circles around quite a few times, as I talked about here.

  5. tpaulin says:

    I got a little carried away there with the idea of the sentences. 🙂 Got a little off-topic, as I do.

    The non-linear story has gotten more and more popular recently, or so it seems to me. Upon finishing a novel, I find it almost equally interesting to continue with another novel either before or after it. Paralyzed with indecision, I do neither.

    I think that writing stories that jump back in time but are meant to be read in the sequence you describe makes perfect sense. That’s how an individual novel is structured, and the series really is one giant novel.

    • Well, I do like the overall story to go forward. I doubt if I’d write a novel about Alex and Vinnie as teenagers, for example (though I do have a lot more material about them). We know where they end up, and it’s more interesting to look at where they go next. (Though I might write a “Jan Sleet solves her first case” story at some point — an idea I just thought of. But not a whole novel.)

      I think back over the “prequel” movies I’ve seen. Both the recent Star Trek and X-Men: First Class were enjoyable, but in each case it was all about seeing the pieces coming into their familiar configuration, which is a limited pleasure. Tarantino may have rewritten the history of World War II, but no major studio is going to be that radical with a multi-billion dollar movie franchise.

      I did like the last Underworld movie. It took place many centuries before the first two, which allowed for more surprises.

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