The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Go back to the beginning

 In Tips for Writers

I rewrote the beginning of my last book about four more times than I edited the whole book (which was a lot).

I wanted the book to build up more gradually than, say, a thriller would. I wanted the start to develop a strong sense of my characters and their world. What I ended up with, though, was not gradual at all, but plain dreary.

I had become used to it. I was too fond of my own characters to notice. I forgot something absolutely basic – the start of a book must certainly introduce us to the characters in the world, but that’s not nearly enough. It has to draw us in. And that means tension and great dollops of literary conflict.

This doesn’t mean that my character has to be fighting someone. Literary conflict has a different meaning from conflict in real life. Basically, it means she must be facing something profound. Something has disturbed the balance of her life (otherwise there’s no story).

We’re often so in love with our own characters, we think readers will fall just as much in love  – at first sight. Sorry. A beginning must set up our first dates with them. Beyond creating the opportunity for us just to see them, our first meetings with them must fascinate, tease and intrigue us. We must find them attractive enough to follow through their story, and their lives must contain enough tension to force us to read on – even if this tension is entirely internal.

And here’s another thing I learnt and which, I believe, is a common discovery. I was feeling my way into a character who was quite different from me. In the first few chapters, I was still finding her voice. Further into the book, I embodied her more fully. Somehow I had to take the voice she developed during the course of the story, and allow that to infuse the beginning too.

I didn’t just rework the beginning. I scrapped it. I didn’t want its imperfect voice to creep into the new chapters, as it might if I simply fiddled with it. Once I had climbed inside her and taken on her tone and humour, I was able to embark on a completely new beginning.

As every journalist knows, you should probably spend as much time on your lead as you do on the rest of your piece.

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