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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

November 2011

"The beginning really is the most important part of your writing."

The beginning really is the most important part of your writing. If the reader doesn’t like the beginning, you’ll never convince him to go on–unless, of course, you have to read it for school like the dreaded Silas Marner. That’s precisely why it’s so hard for a writer to get started. How to find the perfect beginning?

Don’t try. You can write fifty pages, maybe more, before you find your beginning. Meanwhile, the rest of what you wrote is never wasted. It can become part of your story. Maybe where you began might turn out to be your ending.

What helps in making these decisions is to think of why a reader reads in the first place. This is like one of those “why does the chicken cross the road jokes,” but quite simply, a reader reads to get to the next page. And you have to make them want to.

Usually there is a scene in your mind that is what you were writing the book to get to. For example, the moment that the hero faces down the villain. My advice: write that first. It will be the springboard for the rest of your work, helping you write the scenes that lead to it or it might be the beginning. You can starting with the major action of the piece, but not give away how the face off ends up until the very end of the book. What a lure that will be!

You’ll know you’re on the wrong track if your beginning is of the character looking at herself in the mirror musing on what she looks like. Instead of something static, you might want to begin with an action. Maybe the woman looks in the mirror, then picks up a nearby object and smashes the glass. Surely the reader will want to read on to know why she did it.

"…a distinctive voice describing a compelling situation or memory can take the reader into the heart of the book."

Sometimes a distinctive voice describing a compelling situation or memory can take the reader into the heart of the book. Here is one about a young woman who uses sexuality to keep men at a distance from Look at Me by Lauren Mitchell (Leapfrog Press, 2000).

I brought another one home last night. This one had a small birthmark behind his left earlobe and cool skin that smelled of coconut milk and lemon leaves. I catalogue them this way: by the most minor of their physical details, because otherwise, they are not prone to distinction. The drink is always the same; though the color varies from pink, to clear, to amber, its effects are consistent. It convinces him that he’s luring me away from the bar to a more private place—my bedroom, with the bare walls and the white bed, antiseptic as a hospital and more trafficked than Union Station.

Notice how real the author makes the situation sound, as if it’s a memoir, not a fictional character. (Who knows?) How she achieves this is through concrete details—the smell of his skin, the color of drink, the bedroom, the odor of it. Sensory detail helps your book feel true, which is another MUST for getting the reader to turn page one to get to two.

In How to Grow a Novel (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), Sol Stein writes about a CEO he met in Round Hill, Jamaica, a voracious reader who only read nonfiction. “I just like to read what’s true,” he said. Sol Stein gave him Jerzy Kozinsky’s A Painted Bird to read. The man finished it in record time and asked, “Is it true?”

“Does it feel true?” Stein asked.

“Yes,” the CEO said, and Stein knew he had made a convert to fiction and loaned him more novels.

"…when readers feel that the story is made up, even though they know they are reading fiction, they won’t be satisfied…"

The opposite of true is “made up” and when readers feel that the story is made up, even though they know they are reading fiction, they won’t be satisfied, they won’t continue.

If you decide to use description for an opening (which is chancy) it must be an unusual description. Tanith Lee’s Lycanthia (Daw, 1991), begins with the description of a traveler at a deserted train station deep in the wilderness. It’s not just flat description. It moves a story forward, letting the reader know that something terrible is about to happen or has just happened.

“When the winter was over and my nightmares had passed, when someone else’s mistakes had become the subject of local gossip, I set out for the island. I made my way in increments, although the town was all of eighteen miles square. Down the broken black road to the water’s edge. To the bridge where her car was found, overturned like a turtle and buried in the mud.”

Sounds real, doesn’t it? It’s foreboding. You know from the nightmares in the first line that something terrible has happened and then when you read about “her car,” you’re hooked.

Good beginnings are discovered by reading them, lots of them. Go to your bookshelves, find your favorite stories, and read aloud how they begin. If a beginning doesn’t surface in your mind for yours, let yourself write anyway. The beginning will be hiding someplace on the page.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro






Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/