The Starting Point

Photobucket“In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”

― Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova

For everyone, a book starts in a different place. Recently, while I was on vacation, I received a mystifying text. I was sitting on a bus with my two kids, waiting to cross the border from Tijuana to California when my cell phone pinged. Unknown number. Then I read the message:

I did my best with the knife. The rest is up to you.

To say that I was shocked and alarmed is an understatement. But since I’m also a writer (and that means I’m also a little crazy), my imagination immediately kindled with possibilities. What a book started off that way? With a mysterious text and the protagonist doesn’t know what’s going on anymore than the reader? It would be a fascinating hook and a great angle for a suspense or horror story. Some books start out with a trigger event in real life. Others come from a snippet of overheard dialogue. Sometimes it’s a dream. And at other times, these voices have been in your head for so long that you can’t imagine living without them. The only way to exorcise those characters is to tell their story.

I don’t think I’ll write the suspense version, but I could see myself doing psychological horror. I’m told that Hell Fire (the second Corine Solomon novel) is horror more than urban fantasy anyway. I didn’t know that when I wrote it, but if that’s the case, then I can definitely do horror. I don’t think the knife text should be translated directly to fiction, but I have another idea; and it’s just as hooky. (Is that even a word?) I tend to store all these starting points up until I have a chance to decide which ones I really want to pursue. So that’s my tip regarding beginnings. Keep a file of all your inspirations (but don’t abandon your current project).

How do you find the place to start? Sometimes even after I know the story, I have a hard time figuring out exactly where the book should begin; that means multiple rewrites and a lot of angst. A strong first line and an unforgettable first page will draw the reader in.

So when do you know if it’s right? What are your tips and tricks?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  ~jjjohn~

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About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s a great line right there! Had me jump up in my seat. :P

    Beginnings are very difficult for me, but not so much the phrasing of the first line and page, as the question: where in the course of the plot do I start best?

    If there is a sequence of things that has to happen before the inciting incident, do I write them all down before that, or do I reference to them later? They might make the beginning too long if they’re written (however interesting), but might also make the story harder to dive into for the reader if they are missing. This is what’s toughest for me to decide.

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  2. says

    I always start too late. I have to avoid advice like “start with the action” or “start with the story” because I’ll end up starting so late my former beginning becomes the middle. So I end up backing the story up to where I think it should start and then back it up again because I probably still won’t have it right. A lot of my revision will be focused entirely on this one section because it’s very difficult for me to get the placement in the right place.

    I also have to be careful with thinking about what the opening line is. Otherwise, I’ll overthink it and start focusing on trying to make it something that will catch someone’s eye and not focus on the overall scene. I came up with what I thought was the perfect opening line — it did triple duty, and introduced all kinds of intriguing things. Until I hit a critique group, and they raised some issues that told me I’d focused on the line and not on the story. Since I hadn’t done enough with the setting and world building, I went with what the story needed, and it was much better.

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  3. says

    Vero, you struck a resonant chord with me. ‘Where’ to start is golden. Starting with the most logical, linear place may be boring. Starting with the most intriguing line or situation and filling in the circumstances can really hook your wriggling reader so they will willingly jump into the boat. You’ve started my writing day well and true.

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  4. says

    To me, beginnings have always held a sort of power. Usually if I started something poorly I would stop wanting to keep writing it, and it would join the massive folder of unfinished work on my computer. Eventually I learned (and am still learning) that sometimes the beginning isn’t the test of how good your story will be. Once you write the meat of it, you can go back and fix the beginning to fit the rest. Thanks for a great post, and that text message gave me the creeps! I hope nothing “real” came from it!

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  5. says

    Ann,
    What an opening line! So many possibilities flow from that sentence. I have a lot of trouble with opening lines and opening chapters. I usually don’t figure these out until I start my second draft. There is that adage that writers should find the most dramatic scene in the first 100 pages and start the story there. However, as you point out, this often requires set up to place the scene in context for the reader. One technique I’ve used is to find the most dramatic scene in the first 100 pages and write an opening scene that foreshadows it. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Ann.

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  6. anne gallagher says

    I have a problem with my beginnings, in that, I need to start a story at the beginning. I guess that would make me a linear writer. Not to say I don’t have a hook or some snappy dialogue at the beginning, but the story has to flow out of me from the beginning to the end.

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  7. says

    WHOA, awesome trigger for a novel.

    And I totally know what you mean about collecting beginnings. And middles. And ends. And characters. Scenes. Dialogue. All these little tidbits get stored in my mental oven, marinating, baking, until they begin to rise. Then I take them out and see what I’ve got. What can be turned into a dish, what can be saved for something else, and what has to be tossed out.

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    • says

      Kristan,
      Mental oven–I love that! My brain is so overloaded that I would forget what was in the oven and all those ideas would burn to a crisp. I definitely need to write stuff down.

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  8. says

    Love that line.

    When I wrote my first novel, I started it when the protagonist got out of bed to start the day. About a month later, I got an issue of Writer’s Digest that listed newbie mistakes. First, was starting the book with the alarm clock ringing! Needless to say, I had to revise.

    My rule of thumb is to start when the world changes for your characters.

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  9. says

    Ann-

    I was a little surprised by…

    “I don’t think the knife text should be translated directly to fiction.”

    Are you kidding? I agree with Ray and others. That is a killer opening line. Even better that you got this text while crossing the Mexican border!

    Dean Koontz would run with this. (Read “The Good Guy”.) It’s got Hitchcock all over it. Write this story!

    Now, the sender of that text could be a grandmother who left a bowl full of peeled apples on the kitchen table for her daughter, who’s going to make apple pie for Easter.

    But I don’t think so. What sort of protagonist would pursue this when others would hit delete? What sort of antagonist would track down the number to which he (she?) eroneously sent a text?

    Start where the questions start. Then you won’t have a problem with beginnings.

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  10. says

    My first ever draft manuscript got a seventy-five page haircut (pages 1-75), when a friend/willing reader told me to start with a big event. That was my a-ha moment regarding backstory.

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  11. Melanie Bernard says

    I’m in the middle of revising my beginning right now, and this is helping so much. And others have said it before, but the comments are often as helpful as the original post. Bravo, Writer Unboxed!
    And Ann, I agree with everyone else, that is a killer (pun intended) opening line!

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  12. says

    I’ve learned to never trust the beginning – that it usually will be changed or thrown out. Often after a lot of writing I will realize that a sentence/paragraph somewhere in the middle is in fact the beginning, and the beginning gets relegated to the middle or somewhere else, or taken out entirely.

    At the same time I need to get a good beginning written down for the first draft to give me the inspiration and writing energy to make the plunge into the unknown. But even when I come up with something I like, and move forward I am aware I will probably ditch it. Beginnings, then, don’t really work in the Beginning! They come later.

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  13. says

    I love reading books that start exactly like that, well maybe not the knife but certainly an astonishing sentence. Short, direct and (so far) unexplained. So it stands to reason. If that is what I love to read. Then that is what I should be writing. Wonderful, thoughtful post. celi

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  14. says

    What a starting point! And Anne, you could totally do justice to it. Hope you do.

    I’m not generally gifted with such a concrete beginning, though my story seeds are often snippets of dialogue. I need help identifying the best beginning. Thank goodness for readers and critique partners.

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  15. Ronda Roaring says

    “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop. ” This sentiment appears twice in Alice. I think it’s the best advice one writer can give to another.

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  16. says

    I just write it – I know that sounds trite, but I don’t have any magic – – I just try to trust my process and hope for the best :-D

    That text is cool though – I mean . . . no, that’s what I mean – it’s cool :-D

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  17. says

    It’s kind of funny actually, but the ‘start’ of my books is never an issue.

    I’ve started almost everything I’ve written by just knowing the opening line.

    Boy, that text message gave me a lot of plot bunnies, though! What a great start for a book. Wish I’d thought of it so I could write it, LOL

    I’m character-driven. My stories always start off with a character–although I write romance, it’s not always with the heroine, either. Very often, my hero is the beginning of my story.

    I envy writers that can sit and plot an entire book. I’ve never done that. I have a general idea where a story is going near the beginning, but don’t know what’s going to happen along the way!

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  18. says

    I think this is an excellent reminder to pay attention to the tiniest, rawest details. The most ordinary situations can sometimes spark the wildest intimations.

    We are living notebooks, really. Listening, borrowing, imagining, thinking–capturing the threads of conversation as they bounce. The more we listen, the more fuel we have. I never go anywhere without a notebook.

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  19. says

    Wow, you guys all really want to see what I do with the knife text, huh? Maybe I’ll write it. *g*

    Thanks for sharing your tips and strategies!

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