Begin Again

As torturous as writing short stories can be for me, there is one aspect that surpasses all other forms of the written word: beginnings.  Writing an opening to a short story is always the easiest thing for me.

Sadly, this skill does not translate to longer works.

The first time I ran into this problem was with "Pray," but it was, thankfully, brought to my attention at a writers' conference.  I think I did a pretty good job with the beginning of that book.  I know it's much better than it was originally.

With short stories, you can leave some mystery.  You're not asking the reader to invest a big chunk of their time, so it's okay if you don't tell them everything up front.  Each sentence carries more weight than in a book, so exposition in any form becomes problematic.  It's okay if your readers don't know what the story is about right away.

Books are different.  Books require some kind of set-up.  You are asking someone to invest days of their life to your written word, so you need to give them some reason to part with their precious free time.  You have to put the majority of your cards out on the table.

The tricky part is finding the balance between an interesting opening that hooks the reader while still establishing what the book is going to be about.

I have found that the beginnings of books never reveal themselves until I've written a few drafts...and have been rejected by a few agents.

In the case of my first YA book, "Master of the House," I had an agent request the first 25 pages.  She passed on the book based upon what she read.  I know the book itself is good, just as I know it has a great hook.  The problem, then, had to be with those first 25 pages.

My wife had always maintained that the book started too quickly and didn't give enough set-up, but my short story writing-self had a hard time wrapping my brain around that, even if I had run into the same problem with "Pray."

Stories don't start from the beginning.  There's always back story, and much of that back story is important to the story at hand.  The problem, then, is in figuring out how much set up to, well, set up.  So I did what any smart writer would do: I looked at similar books for ideas.

I ended up adding two new chapters to the beginning of the book, then giving the first 25 pages to my wife to look over.  She liked my new chapters, but she had lots of issues with them, issues that were more or less solved with one move: I switched them around.

I now had what was probably the 4th or 5th different beginning to "Master of the House."  But I think this new one works.

My initial impulse will always be to open a story with a moment, not necessarily a chapter.  But I think I'm becoming better at finding the happy medium between the two.

Now I just have to worry about my endings.