If pieces of writing bore the physical marks of their editing process like scars, it’s the beginning of most people’s stories and novels that would bear the worst of them. Here’s a creative writing exercise that’ll help you cut through the noise and get to the heart of your beginning.
The world of writing advice is brimming with tips on how to write a good book or story beginning.
The opening of a work of fiction needs to immerse a reader on page one, we are constantly reminded. It will change the tone of the book or short story to come, it is easily the hardest part of the book to write, and it is of course the first thing that an agent or publisher will read.
It must start with a hook to draw their interest, it must establish the character of the narrator or narrative voice instantly, but also foreground an exciting event, a moment of momentum and motion. It must introduce all the information that the reader cannot infer or assume. This gamut of contradictory and confusing advice is what causes most people’s beginnings to undergo so much more editing than any other part of their work. I know this is true of myself.
Trying to write an effective beginning with all this in mind seems to always lead to overwrought and overthought writing. This is the bad news. The good news is that the perfect beginning is not lurking somewhere out there in the creative ether, just out of reach. It’s likely that you’ve already written it, and it’s hiding somewhere in the rest of the work. Here’s a creative writing exercise that will help you draw it out, but you’re not going to like it.
Delete the first three pages.
‘Hold on,’ you say, ‘the first three pages is the whole of my beginning! It’s where I set everything up, it’s where I draw the reader in with all my best descriptions, and introduce them to my characters. It’s where I hid my sharpest hook.’
This is precisely the problem. Readers like to be hooked, but when they know it’s happening they distrust the writer. And your readers are smarter than you think. They know it’s happening.
‘But what about the information I include, to make sure they understand the setting, the characters, so they don’t get confused and lost?’
It was slowing down the pace, and probably boring them. Your readers are smarter than you think. When they enter a new book, they’re hyperaware, on the lookout for place-markers in this new world. They extrapolate on the smallest hint, and do not need to be led. This extends to setting, character, atmosphere. A single line of authentic dialogue, spoken by a character who lives, will trump any amount of description, or clever simile-play in drawing the reader in.
Of course, deleting stuff you’ve already written, especially the stuff you’ve worked on the hardest, is like stopping in a marathon to run back down the track. Downhill. But this is the reality of your profession.
Poet David Morley used to tell students at Warwick ‘Murder your darlings’. It hurts, I know. But just about every time, any points you score in the first three pages, with your self-conscious The Novel is Beginning voice will be doubled by the unself-conscious fourth page, or fifth page, or wherever you think the cut should be made.
The narrative has already got going. The characters are already in the middle of things, not simply summoned like mayflies to live out the scope of the book and die on the last page. The reader hits the ground running, and will thank you for it. David Foster Wallace once said that writing a novel is ‘like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind‘. Sometimes you have to let the wind take them.