Why is Beginning Your Novel So Hard?

Thursday, February 08, 2018
Talk to almost any novelist, and we all complain about the same thing: We have rewritten the beginning of our novels countless times and are still obsessing over them. And I'm not only talking about the first sentence. I'm focusing on the first few pages, or even first chapter. It's hard. But then again, beginning anything is hard--right? Beginning that diet or exercise program...beginning a new career...beginning to clean out the garage. So it's only natural that since writing takes so much skill and talent, getting the beginning of a novel just right is extremely difficult.

But you can do it!

What I've been noticing lately about novels I critique and my own work-in-progress is the two problems of deciding what is the inciting incident for this character's life and how to work in the backstory. These are old problems. These are issues that writers have had for years. These are topics we've already written blog posts about. And yet, it's still hard. Right? At least, it is for me and it seems to be for some of my fellow writers.

So what can we do?

Read other books. Sue suggested in yesterday's blog post several tips you can learn from reading other authors. Paying attention to where in the story published authors begin and work in the backstory will help you with your own decisions.

Find other writers to discuss this problem. I think this is one of the most important things you can do for your writing. You need to discuss in-person or online (with Skype or Google Hangouts) your work with other writers who will give you honest feedback.

Remember backstory is overrated. You only have to reveal enough backstory about your characters for readers to understand the story up to that point. And in the beginning, what readers really need to understand is the current major problem in the novel--not the other 100 problems your character had before this story started. Pay attention to what your reader really needs to know at each point in your novel and leave the rest of the backstory out.

Compare the inciting incident to something in your life. Even if you're writing a fantasy novel, your character is experiencing a problem that is similar to either something in your life or someone you know or read about. In your novel, is your character lost and trying to find their way home? So, in your own life, when you've been lost, what was the inciting incident that started this problem of being lost? A thunderstorm that made you miss a turn? Bad directions from someone who didn't want you to show up on time? Or...? Each problem in your life has had an inciting incident. Think about what started that real-life problem and then your character's inciting incident will be more clear.

Give yourself a break. I said it above, and I will say it again: Beginning anything is hard. It's even hard to sometimes sit down and begin the writing session! But you are doing it, and you will do it. Just be aware that it's difficult and work hard to overcome this.

Do you have any tips for beginning a novel (or memoir or short story, etc)? We would love to hear them below! 

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. To take her novel writing course, which starts the first Friday in March, please see the details here. To find out more about her, please see her website: http://www.margoldill.com

Chapter one photo above by Kate Ter Haar on Flickr.com


Angela Mackintosh said...

These are excellent tips, Margo! I'm currently trying to figure out how to begin a memoir...I'm thinking of using part of an incident, one of the peak points that will occur about a third into the book, as a snapshot in the beginning, and then start from the beginning after that. Or I'm thinking about starting with an argument, the inciting incident that set things in motion. There are so many different ways I could go, and I get bored with chronological order. I tend to overthink things though, and have to remember that I can shuffle things around later. I'm currently taking a look at other memoirs for structure and outlining the way they weave time periods in their story.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--You gave me some important points to remember/consider. Yes, beginnings are tough. As for Angela's ponderings, I agree. Chronological is not always the best. Randomly arranging them would be an interesting choice.

Margo Dill said...

I also agree! I was writing my novel chronologically and it was not working! Then I started mixing things around and it was better! I even let my writing group finally read the first three chapters!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, yes, indeed, Margo, I change the first chapter more than anything else in a novel!

But here are two tricks I use:

Trick 1: Just start. Sometimes, I'm not sure what that moment is when a character's life changes and it becomes obvious as I write the story. Takes the pressure off to just start telling the story. I mean, I'm going to go back and change the beginning anyway, right? :-)

Trick 2: I always think the best example of a perfect opening is in CHARLOTTE'S WEB when the protagonist says, "Where's Papa going with that ax?" Her life changes at the moment when she realizes that an animal who has become her FRIEND might die. So I ask myself if I've found a CW moment. Sometimes, it works! :-)

Thanks for your tips! I can always use help with the beginning!

Renee Roberson said...

This post couldn't have come at a better time. I've been forced to work on my latest YA as part of the accountability group I'm in (yes!) and I had been hung up on the opening chapter. I read your post and decided to open the novel with a glimpse of the character AFTER she had been through trauma, and this somehow unraveled a whole new layer to her that I didn't realize I needed. I revised the first two chapters in record time and they flowed really well! So thank you for getting me out of my rut. So I started in the after and then will jump back to the before without too much confusion.

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