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Writing Wednesday: In Medias Where?

I just had one of those lightbulb moments that are simultaneously wildly helpful and just as wildly inconvenient. I realized that I was trying to start my book in the wrong place.

By which, of course, I don’t mean the wrong locale, but the wrong spot in the plot.

I’ve found that for me, the two greatest sources of writer’s block are (1) starting in the wrong place, (2) trying to write in the wrong character’s viewpoint, and (3) sheer laziness– wait! The three greatest sources of writer’s block are…. (Okay, I’ve got Monty Python out of my system now.)

Leaving aside the sheer laziness factor (and item #4, pure blinding fear that the book on the page will never be as good as the story in my head), one of the things that gets me most stuck is starting at the wrong jumping off point. With some books, it’s easy to know where to begin. In Emerald Ring, my heroine had an elopement into which to stumble; in The Orchid Affair, there was a crucial job interview that put my heroine and my hero exactly where I needed them to be.

Other attempts at a first chapter set me back months. The Garden Intrigue initially began very differently, down on the banks of the Seine with the murder of a young operative. I pounded away at the infuriating chapter for weeks, cutting and pasting, tinkering with the prose, before realizing that it wasn’t that flawed sentence on page three that was the problem: it was the wrong place to start the story. The story had to start with Augustus reciting poetry. In retrospect, that seems obvious. I only wish it had been obvious to me a few weeks and several gallons of coffee earlier.

I wish I had a hard and fast algorithm for determining that pesky “where to begin” question, other than pure gut instinct and several weeks of banging my head against an unresponsive Word file, but, as you can see, I’m still trying to wrestle it to the ground. I have figured out a couple of things from these false starts, such as: the first chapter must fit the tone of the book as a whole. With Garden Intrigue, I was trying to graft a cloak and dagger noir beginning on what was essentially a novel of drawing room repartee. Bad idea.

Another lesson? Make sure your characters are in character, right from the very beginning. Although I’m still working this one out, I think the problem with my false start on the current manuscript was opening the story in a way that forced my heroine to behave inconsistently with what I know of her character. And if she’s not in character in the first chapter, how will anyone believe her for the rest of the book? What was happening in that scene needs to happen, for the sake of the plot, but by changing where I’m starting the story, I give both my readers and myself time to get acquainted with my heroine before getting to that point– so we’ll be able to figure out exactly why she does what she does. In character.

Mostly, though, I wind up relying on trial and error. If the story moves forward, I’ve started it in the right place. If the story doesn’t move forward (i.e. many weeks of tinkering with the same few paragraphs) then it invariably means that I need to rethink where I began.

When I was very, very stuck on one of the books, my editor, to comfort me, told me that one of her other authors (a rather famous one) had once gotten so stuck on the beginning that she had written the book backward: starting at the end and working her way back to the beginning. I gather, via my editor, that the author didn’t recommend this as a technique, but that it was something she needed to do to get her through that particular book.

How do you break through those beginning blues?

3 Comments

  1. Céline on October 10, 2012 at 8:54 am

    I’ve been having the same problem, not with the beginning, but the different sections of my story. Each time I spent too much time on a few pages, I tell myself that I’m doing it wrong. Then comes the idea that changes all the plans I made and it flows so fluently that I realize I’ve been wanting my heroin to fit into a story that doesn’t suit her character. It happens each and every time I’m coming back to that heroin (my story intertwine a modern-day woman and a “fairy tale” heroin… the fairy tale heroin being the one that fights the story all the time…).
    It could be that my idea for the story in general is wrong, very wrong, otherwise, it wouldn’t be so hard to write it the way I want it… But then again, I don’t know and I don’t know how I can see if the story is good or just bad. It’s only my first try at writing a book and I’m learning so much doing it. And I so wish to bring my heroins to their happy ending, that I keep writing, all the while trying to understand what the fairy tale part wants me to do… and doing a poor job of it (it’s much easier with the modern-day part)! I can’t manage to think things through properly before writing them and being confronted to what my characters would do…

  2. Alison D. on October 10, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I had a fiction writing teacher in college who without fail would tear the first three pages off a story and start reading there, saying that was the true beginning. More often than not, this works for me.

  3. Jane B on October 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks for the tip about making your beginning fit the overall tone of the book. Now if I were just sure what that means in the case of my WIP, maybe I could stop fiddling with the beginning.

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