Starting the Story in the Right Place

While traveling last weekend (which is why I didn’t post a segment of The King’s Daughter), I tried to read a historical mystery novel. It was the first in a series of several and I’d hoped I’d found a new Sebastian St. Cyr or Nell Sweeney. Instead I found a boring series of events and gave up about 25% of the way through the book.

My main gripe? Well, it wasn’t until 14% of the way through the novel that we had an inciting event. Until that point, I wasn’t sure what the plot of this book would be, or whether it just would be a long string of events.  In my mind, everything that happened in the first 14% (and first YEAR) of the novel could have been summed up in a few sentences. The novel would have been better served to start there, when the heroine finally found the suspicious letter that got her moving.

It’s an important lesson to learn.

When I first submitted “Touching the Dead” to Jim Baen’s Universe, there was another scene at the beginning. The editors there quickly pointed out that my story would be served better to start on the next scene, and anything important from scene 1 could be worked back in later. I did as they suggested, and they bought that story. Easy peasy.

After that point, I always tried to start with the dead body.

It doesn’t work for all my stuff, but I try to get there as quickly as I can.*

So it’s worth keeping in mind (for authors) that we need to tell readers up front what this story’s about and why we should keep reading. There needs to be a clear beginning (along with the middle and end.) And finding that beginning can be difficult.

I, for one, often write parts that end up being cut off.  For example, The King’s Daughter has TWO prologues. Both were intended to tell the reader that X was going to happen later in the book.  However, in the ultimate version, I will definitely cut one, and possibly both. The book really starts when the soldiers arrive.

I cut scenes off the beginning of a lot of my stuff. I feel, strangely, that I benefit from writing them, even if I know early on I’m not going to use those scenes. They help ME understand the backstory, and while backstory doesn’t always surface in the final product, it fills out the characters for me.

So my advice would be to go ahead and write your rough draft, starting it wherever you want, but keep your mind open to trimming that beginning off later.

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*My big exception to this is Dreaming Death, where the editor asked me to add a few days to the beginning of the story. It originally started roughly where Chapter Nine is now. I wasn’t wild about the change, but the editor asked and I delivered. Then the next editor was baffled why nothing happened in the beginning of the book and asked me to take most of it out. I tried, but since I was in the middle of moving to another state and under a very short deadline, I really couldn’t do that successfully…leaving me with a version of the book that is too front heavy for my liking. If I ever get the rights to that book back, perhaps I’ll change it back to the way it was. I liked that version better.

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And speaking of Dreaming Death and “Touching the Dead”, I plan on releasing an ebook version of three short stories set in that world, all of which occur before the novel itself. “Touching the Dead” is included in this, and is the first meeting of Shironne and Colonel Cerradine.

Shared Dreams should be out later this month, and will sell for 99 cents…so look for it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

(typewriter photo via Pixabay)

 

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