The Art of Fiction: Your First Word

June 30, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

The Art of Fiction: 
Your First Word

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

July 2008

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Mind of Your Story
Mind of Your Storyby Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

What’s the first word in your fiction? Is it someone’s name? If so, whose? (It ought to be your protagonist’s, to establish point of view.) Is it a location? If that’s the case, that place had better matter to the entire fiction. Maybe it’s a variation of “the day I…” But why this day? It should be the day that what’s important to this fiction begins.

"“It Starts Here Because It’s About This” It all sounds so simple,
doesn’t it?"

—Lenard-Cook

“It Starts Here Because It’s About This”

It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, in the workshop I’m teaching this week in Santa Barbara, we’ve run across a lot of throwaway first words. Two of them were characters’ names, but in one case a character incidental to the story who had a great line with which the author wanted to begin, and in the second a character who would soon (in two pages, to be precise) be gone.

Another began on a plane, then quickly moved, first, to a cab, and then, still more quickly, into an extended (beautifully written) flashback. Still another began in a dream – or was it?

A number of years ago, as we explored beginnings in one of my classes, a student had an aha moment that led her to make the observation above: “It begins here because it’s about this.” Another simple statement, right? So why, again and again – even when we’re established writers (who ought to know better, yes?) – do we begin with the wrong word?

"Beginning with the wrong word is not the same as beginning in the wrong place."

Come On In.

Beginning with the wrong word is not the same as beginning in the wrong place. We do that, too, of course, but beginning with the wrong word is in its way a more subtle, but bigger problem. If we’ve begun in the wrong place, after all, we can pick up the entire scene and move it where it belongs. But a wrong word is harder to ferret out, especially when it’s just you and your manuscript – and that first word you’ve read so many times you hardly notice it any more.

This is yet another reason I encourage you to get to the end of a draft before cementing the beginning (and the middle). Your first word is the not merely the one that will (or will not) cause a reader to read the second, and then the third. It’s also a door, an opening into this fictional world into which you’re inviting your reader, a world to which s/he hopes to surrender her own so that, for a few hours (or even longer), s/he can live in yours.

But if your first word is the wrong word, the second could cause a stutter wherein your reader has to stop and re-imagine what the first word conjured. And if this stutter effect occurs repeatedly in your first paragraph – if your reader hasn’t started to imagine your fiction’s world and then added to that picture as the paragraph progressed – you’ve lost your reader when you’ve just barely begun.

"Everything I can teach you about writing will always return
to its most important aspect
– the way it engages… "

—Lenard-Cook

Sit Down. Stay A While.

Everything I can teach you about writing will always return to its most important aspect – the way it engages (or doesn’t engage) your reader. If you want to write esoteric, hard-to-understand fiction, that’s fine – but don’t expect a lot of readers to want to spend time there. Readers want – pay for, even live for – a world in which to lose themselves, not one that leaves them with more problems than their own lives.

So begin at the beginning. If it’s Sally’s story, begin with Sally, and if it’s taking place in Timbuktu, say so, then allow us to make it our own. Begin here, as my student said, because it’s about this, and not only will the rest follow, but your readers will, too.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) can be purchased at amazon.com.

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