Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beginnings: "Call Me Ishmael"--Or Maybe Not

When you get to be my age, you’ve had so many beginnings and endings that you lose count. So far, at least, a beginning has followed every ending—and I have faith that will always be the case. But the sheer number of beginnings is a bit overwhelming.

And that’s my excuse for being late with this blog. I couldn’t decide which beginning to write about.  So I just decided to write about beginnings of novels.

When I first started studying fiction writing, I was told, “If you don’t capture your reader in the first three chapters, you’ll never capture them.” 

Have you stopped laughing? Yeah. The last thing I read said a writer has one sentence.  ONE SENTENCE!  “Call me Ismael,” isn’t going to cut it any more. On the other hand, I think one of my favorite authors got it right. Thank Jim Butcher for, “The building was on fire and this time it wasn’t my fault.” (Quoted from memory, so don't blame me if it isn't exact.)

How do my own first sentences stand up to that? Not so well. Which might explain why I’m not a best selling author. The first sentence of my published novel, When the Moon Is Gibbous and Waxing, is, “When Natalie recorded the final reading for the blood she had drawn from her guinea pigs that afternoon and looked up from her meticulous notes, she realized how quiet the lab was.” Not very exciting. But you do learn a lot from that one sentence: the name of the protagonist, her job, the approximate time of day, and something about her personality. And trust me, by the end of the opening scene, you get all the excitement you need.

Looking through my works in progress, I see that’s my pattern—I begin quietly, giving the reader several paragraphs to get to know the protagonist, then finish the first scene with a bang. But in the sequel to Gibbous Moon, I break one of the cardinal rules of fiction writing—I don’t even begin with the protagonists. Then I kill off one of the characters I do start with. In the second chapter, I kill off the other one. (Can we, like, call that a prologue maybe? No? OK, then just live with it--no pun intended. That’s how it has to be.)

Book three—or it might be book four—in the series actually does begin with a prologue, which we are told is simply not allowed. But when I presented the first chapter to my critique group, they demanded it. Once it was written, I agreed with them, although it means the book follows the pattern I’ve established. I do like the first sentence of the official Chapter One, though:

“In the genetic crapshoot that preceded David’s conception, something had gone very wrong.”

Does that beginning get your attention?


  1. I would answer with an emphatic YES!
    Beginnings are, imo, wherever the story starts in your mind. Where do I begin to tell this story? At the beginning! So that's why I'm not a best selling author, either.

    I love this post.

  2. That beginning does get my attention!! I think you're a very good writer!

    Here is the first sentence to my first book. It is available for free on my website. It is a novelette call "Alexandra's Adventure"

    Alexandra had it all planned. Her suitcase was packed and hidden in the extra closet, the laundry was caught up, meals were made for at least a week (with instructions for defrosting) and the house was spotless. Nothing left undone...just like always.

    I hope it enticed people to read the book!

    1. It certainly intrigues me! Sounds like she's escaping. Hope she makes it!

  3. umm yes, it does. But then so does the other! Loved your piece today!

    1. Thank you. When I write a blog, often as not it just kind of spills out of the top of my head. I always hope it goes over the way I intended.

  4. It got my attention. First sentences are so important. I'm beginning to think that some editors and agents only read the first word!!

  5. May the first two, Janie. And they'd better not be "It was" or "There were." : - )