Getting Started: the first few pages
There’s an awful lot of advice on the internet and in craft-of-writing books, from revered writers and craft teachers about getting the first few pages right.
And it’s pretty much all true.
But what they often forget to say is this: the first few pages of your final book are almost never the first few pages of your first draft.
If you sweat madly over your first pages, trying desperately to get it right — or worse, perfect — when all you’ve got is five pages (or fewer) of your story, it’s probably the surest way to kill your story enthusiasm. You’re likely never to get beyond a five page manuscript.
The thing is, some lucky writers get the first line, and the first few pages perfect from the very start; the rest of us have to work much harder. For me, the start of the book almost always comes hard, and I’m almost always half way through the story before I work out what I need the opening pages to achieve. Sometimes the beginning is the last thing I write. Once I know my character’s journey and how it ends, I know what I need to set up at the start.
So if you’re just starting on your first novel, or if you’re a pantser, try just diving in to your story from wherever it starts in your mind. Know that this beginning probably won’t end up as the final opening pages — but you haven’t written enough of the story yet to know what the start should be doing. Just write madly while your enthusiasm for the story idea is driving you, until you run out of steam. And know that this is just a first draft, so anything goes.
You need to be free to write whatever comes to you, without thinking about the market, or craft-of-writing advice, or what readers might think. Forget the rules, just plunge in to the story.
This is your honeymoon phase — there’s just you and your muse and characters playing under a luscious golden dreaming moon.
Writing is rewriting.
I used to read a lot of first manuscripts (I don’t now — no time) and one thing that popped up again and again is that often, for the first three chapters or so, the writer was writing their way into the story world of the character, learning about the characters, creating the world of the story, learning and describing backstory, and falling in love with the story. But their real story actually started in chapter four.
This is NOT a bad thing — you need to do all that work in finding out who your characters are, and where the story takes place, and play with various possibilities. So go ahead and write them.
Once your story is spinning and you have the plot taking off, and you know who your people are, you have something to work with — like a potter who’s dug the clay, taken out all the stones, then processed it until it’s smooth and a rough shape has emerged. You have your raw material.
Then you can decide where the best place to start might be. A suggestion often made is to start at the point of change for the main character — where something happens to cause him or her to take action of some kind, for their life to have to change.
Think about your story and work out what you need to set up. Considering some of the following:
a) What’s the best, most effective and interesting way readers could meet your main character(s)?
b) What do you want to show about your character(s)? What first impression do you want readers to get of them?
c) What story questions or intrigue do you want to plant in your reader’s mind?
So don’t sweat the first few pages or that brilliant first line — just write. Some writers refer to their early draft as the discovery draft. That comes first. Crafting a brilliant opening comes later, in some case, much later.