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Great Starts

I thought it fitting that the first post of this new year is about great beginnings.

To be honest, starts are my writing weakness. When I wrote my first novel, I had written 60,000 words before I realized I had started, chronologically and narratively, in the wrong place. I (the narrator) was telling the story from the perspective of a character generationally removed from the actual protagonist. Everything was wrong. The “real” story hadn’t even started. So, I deleted 45,000 words and started all over again.

The new draft makes much more sense and begins – as they say – in medias res.

Even when I write short stories, my starts are weak and uncompelling. I feel as though I’ve put my shirt on before my bra.

Every now and then, I read a book or a story that jumps off the page in the first few lines. And I’m typically smitten. Recently, I read two novels with beginnings that (I think) could be upheld as gold standards for openings. I’ve read them dozens of times to identify what makes them work so effectively. I’ll give you my thoughts after each one, but let me know what strikes you, too.

From Writers and Lovers, by Lily King

“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.

Adam, my landlord, watches me walk his dog. He leans against his Benz in a suit and sparkling shoes as I come back up the driveway. He’s needy in the morning. Everyone is, I suppose. He enjoys his contrast to me in my sweats and untamed hair.

When the dog and I are closer he says, ‘You’re up early.’

I’m always up early. ‘So are you.’

‘Meeting with the judge at the courthouse at seven sharp.’ Admire me. Admire me. Admire judge and courthouse and seven sharp.

‘Somebody’s gotta do it.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to. I let the dog yank me a few steps past him toward a squirrel squeezing through some slats at the side of his big house.

‘So,’ he says, unwilling to let me get too far away. ‘How’s the novel?’ He says it like I made the word up myself. He’s still leaning against his car and turning only his head in my direction, as if he likes his pose too much to undo it.

‘It’s all right.’ The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning. ‘I’ve got to get back to it. Short day. Working a double.’

I pull the dog up Adam’s back porch, unhook the leash, nudge him through the door, and drop quickly back down the steps.

‘How many pages you got now?’

‘Couple of hundred, maybe.’ I don’t stop moving. I’m halfway to my room at the side of his garage.

‘You know,’ he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.’

It’s an uneventful scene. Nothing really happens, yet the reader is left with many questions s/he now needs answered.

King gives the reader so much information in these few paragraphs: a protagonist who has reason to worry about money, a “Luke” who plays some influential role in her life, knowledge that her mother died (probably unexpectedly, since she was on vacation when it happened), that she walks the landlord’s dog, though he is seemingly capable of the task, which makes the reader wonder what arrangement exists between the two, and that she is writing a novel.

That’s all right on the page. But King is also giving the reader a picture of the protagonist’s mindset. She is wary of Adam, she is self-conscious about her work (and perhaps herself) and that she has little tolerance for privilege.

And Adam’s callous words to her immediately align reader and protagonist. I must know how she proves him wrong.

From Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

“Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights. The stranger called and said, “I have some pants? Belonging to a Howard Young?”

“Well, shit,” I said. I put the phone down to verify that Dad was home and had pants on. He was, and he did.

Yesterday, on Mom’s orders, I’d written his name and our phone number in permanent marker onto the tags of all his clothes.

Apparently what he’s done, in protest, is pitched the numbered clothing into trees. Up and down Euclid, his slacks and shirts hang from the branches. The downtown trees have their holiday lights in them, and this man who called had, while driving, noticed the clothes, illuminated.”

The high level of intrigue in this opening scene compels the reader forward. First, we make assumptions about what’s going on: Dad’s got some mental health or memory challenges, and daughter takes care of him. But more information unfolds. She participates in the care of her father, along with her mother. And Dad may not be incapacitated, as he makes a conscious decision in protest.

Reconciling these two paradigms is now the reader’s job. What’s really happening? Whose story is truly being shared?

There are other literary beginnings that grab reader’s attention. Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, where the narrator, a Professor, watches the parade of college students descend upon campus at the start of the school year. His keen observations are written with such clarity and such personality, the picture of character and place are clear.

And of course, the classics, like Albert Camus’ The Outsider, which begins, “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

Ursula LeGuin wrote in her essay The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, “first sentences are doors to worlds.” In each of these instances, the worlds available to the reader are those of a character’s mind, or their plight. These first lines determine whether investing in this character’s story is worth our while.

The novel I’m currently writing does not (yet) have a beginning. I commenced with a scene that is integral to the story but is not the start of it. I figure, I’ll write the opening scene(s) last. Perhaps that’s just the kind of writer I need to be.


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