Saturday, April 6, 2013

"It's Always Best to Start at the Beginning..."

For those of you who know me well, you'll know that the title of this post is a quote from my favorite movie as well as being a simply stated truth.

It's a quote from this lovely woman:

Every so often on Twitter an agent will comment about a book shouldn't start with your main character eating breakfast, looking in a mirror, waking up, etc...

Basically, if it's something that doesn't move the story immediately forward then the reader doesn't need to read it. Since the reader is human, and the character is (most likely) human then we all understand a morning routine, and if your character's morning routine is the same as everyone else's then move on. I know Dorothy probably woke up and brushed her teeth and fixed her hair in the mirror - that didn't get her to Oz any faster, and none of us wondered about what she had for breakfast.

However if you google "Literary Agent Pet Peeves" this offense inevitably is on the list. If you're reading this, then you probably know not to open with breakfast, or any other mundane task (unless the character's routine in is some way unusual and gives us a sense of setting).
If the book is written in first person then you know it's totally cheating to have them look in a mirror and describe themselves. If it were a game of Monopoly it'd be like you starting with $2,000 instead of the standard $1,500.

***An instance a mirror description worked well is in Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT, but that was because it was unusual for someone raised like Tris to look in a mirror. It provided setting, world-building, and also Tris's simultaneous pleasure and discomfort when she saw her reflection gave us a sense of character foreshadowing. If you're going to do it, then that is how it should be done.***

Enough of the obvious. If you've somehow found this blog then you already know - Start with the Action!
The proper starting point was something I had a very difficult time finding in my manuscript. See, like you, going in I knew all the basics, and what Not to do. There is a hidden formula in my mind though for revealing a fantasy world that you not only escape to, but also somewhere in your heart believe exists. For me it has to be gradual. A colorful cocktail instead of a shot - that illustration is crude, but accurate. Some people like to start with shots, then maintain a buzz with a beverage of their choice through the night. I like to sit, sip my colorful drink, and then when I get up from my chair I realize that my legs don't function quite as gracefully as they usually do. I like my stories told the same way - to change my perceptions without leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.

Often an agent or editor will voice their distaste for prologues. This was a stumbling block for me as well. My book has a prologue. The inciting incident that makes my girls who they are happens when they are infants. Nothing that advances the story occurs within the intervening 13 years, but that inciting incident has to be there because the only other participant in the Very Beginning is now dead.

So how do you know where to start your story?

First, you have to know what kind of story it is you want to tell. Your Voice and your characters will help you determine where to start.
But don't waste a word. Words are precious. You might be trying to write a sweeping epic with a million twists, turns, and nuances. You want to break every barrier, trope, and cliche and spin it on its head. Do it! But don't waste our time; don't water down our drink.
Some agents may think you're watering it down, and you won't get the chance to tell them "No, no! That's a special ingredient you won't feel until it kicks in around book 4."
That's fine. As long and your not beating around the bush, and you know you're not then that's totally fine. Some people like shots, that's all. Your agent will say, "Hmm. This tastes good, but it could use a little of this..." or "This is the best drink I've had in a while; got any more?"

It's all in the beginning.
Nothing hamfisted, nothing that's been done a thousand times over, but also nothing that weighs you down.
I tried deliberately slowing down the fantasy reveal in my manuscript. I thought it was all too much too soon. Thus the first several drafts were hilariously (dangerously) overwritten. Trust your story, trust yourself, and start where you know it starts; not where you want it to, or where you think it should. Trust that part of you that wants to cut loose and dive headfirst into all of your awesome!
Then find a CP; after that find a Beta the time the dust settles you'll have something worthy of an agent's attention.

Until we meet again...

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