Beginning a new piece of fiction feels like a lucky dip. I pay my 50p, close my eyes and rummage around in the sawdust. Pretty soon my fingers touch something crinkly, lumpy, interesting. I take a deep breath and pull it out.
What is it? A curiosity? A delight? The start of a life-long relationship? Or is it poorly made, quick to break or worse, a toy that’s been used already?
Sometimes I strike lucky. Sometimes I need to spend another 50p – or several. Oh dear, how much is this metaphor going to cost me?
The point is, finding the ‘right’ beginning can take a little time.
A writer’s sense of a good beginning is often heavily loaded. Twitter is particularly adept at bite-sized prohibitions such as ‘don’t start with the weather’, ‘don’t start with two pages of dialogue’ or ‘prologues – don’t even go there’. Such warnings are the result of many a bad beginning. They are useful, up to a point, though we’ve all been diverted by fictions that break the rules.
Still, when faced with a blank page, those ‘don’ts’ can feel prescriptive and dispiriting. One way round this is to break down ‘beginning’ into three parts.
First, there’s an idea. That’s a beginning, and you haven’t even started writing!
Second, put some words down on the page. That’s a beginning too, but you’re only playing and so it can change. Write a prologue, or dialogue, or describe the weather, if it helps. Nothing is fixed.
Third, you’ve written lots of words and you stand back and look at what you have. The story needs a shape, and the shape needs a beginning and you may not find the right one until you’ve reached the end. The prologue, the dialogue, the weather helped to get you there. Their job is done and they can be retired in the second draft – maybe.
This is where the writer must apply a fiercely critical eye. Is the beginning interesting? Will it beguile/intrigue the reader? If that prologue is compelling (instead of merely ‘necessary’) then maybe you should call it Chapter One. Or is it really pre-writing: something you needed to tell yourself and no one else?
I want to get it right first time. Of course I do! But if I had to get it right first time, I might never plunge in at all. The rummaging is worth every penny.