Wednesday, August 20, 2014


A great beginning is everything.
Don't you just love it in movies about writers when the author sits down to actually write?

Author sucks at the end of a pen, or flexes his fingers over the the keyboard for about 3.2 seconds, then commences to churn out the first two or five or ten pages of his magnum opus—as perfect and divine as Athena springing full-born from the head of Zeus.

Ah, such a charming fantasy. But don't be fooled, kids. In real life, the beginning of a book is the hardest part.

Everyone knows the first couple of pages or paragraphs, or sentences are the most important of the book—especially in this ADD-afflicted era, when there is so much competition for our shrinking attention spans. But that doesn't mean those first deathless lines are going to be the very first thing you write.

In my case, those opening pages are the very last thing I write! Or at least the last thing I write well.

Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf, The Hours: real writers write over.
During the first draft of a novel, I'm basically telling myself the story. I know it's all going to change in the rewriting process anyway. For that first draft I'll start anywhere that seems to get me into the story, some conversation, or interior monologue, or action sequence that gets me going. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first word.

Once I've plunged in, I keep adding scenes as they occur to me (and usually not in chronological order) until I have some sense of a story arc heading for a conclusion. For me, knowing how the story ends is essential before I can go back and re-tackle that all-important opening.

There are times, however, when first instincts are serendipitous. For Alias Hook, the very first paragraph I committed to a Word doc remained the first paragraph of the book in print—at least in the UK edition:

Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile, which drags him down to a watery grave. Who could guess that below the water, the great beast would spew me out with a belch and a wink of its horned, livid eye? It was not yet my time to die, not then nor any other time. It's my fate to be trapped here forever in a nightmare of childhood fancy with that infernal, eternal boy. 

The Disney version ends where my story begins.
True inspiration struck belatedly (as usual), and I wrote an entirely new prologue for the US edition. However, that first paragraph remains intact as the first words James Hook "speaks" to the reader as his personal narrative begins—although the rest of the opening chapter surrounding it changed many, many times.

And that's just the way it is. Only after plowing through the entire narrative, with all its drama, humor, and heartbreak, can you possibly understand where your story really begins.

(Above: Russell Brand as Captain Hook, photographed by Annie Liebovitz.)

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