Saturday, July 30, 2011


Last month I was a speaker at a Wyoming writers conference. I also critiqued seven Advance Submissions—whose qualities ranged from poor to nearly professional.

Yet one thing they all had in common: nobody knew where to begin.

I still remember some of those slow starts: a young woman taking cookies to her aging grandmother; another girl traveling to Florida on a train, idly musing about her changing life; a couple setting up a tent on the beach; a young girl driving into a strange town, reasons unknown.

Nothing happening anywhere.

Compare these beginnings to the start of a book whose author I recently interviewed: In Las Vegas a young woman falls out of a tour helicopter and lands in the middle of the pirate show on Treasure Island.

Now THAT’S a beginning.

Not all beginnings need to be this extreme. But the book must open in the middle of something dramatic. A beginning can be compared to someone dropping into a rushing river, and any minute he’ll plunge over the waterfall.

Beginnings start at a moment of crisis, after which the characters’ lives change forever, and nothing will be the same.

When I speak to memoir writers I ask, “What’s the most dramatic thing that ever happened to you?” and when they explain, I say, “Start there. Then backtrack and tell us how you got there and why this terrible, or amazing thing happened.

Think of the book “Into Thin Air” in which a mountain climber attempts to reach the top of Mount Everest. Guess where the book starts . . . at the top of Everest. So you know the hero reached his goal, but the interesting story questions remain. How did he get there? What happened along the way? What about the people who never achieved their dreams--who instead may have died?

If you need examples of great starts to novels, you might look at my book, “Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead,” and read the chapter on Beginnings. I’ve got some great ones.

Meanwhile, in your own work, as you begin Chapter One, think DRAMA. CATASTROPHE. EXCITEMENT. PERIL. Anything less won’t do.