Monday, October 21, 2013

Round-Table: Beginnings Written and Chopped

I fell in love with sumptuous writing when reading Annie Dillard's essays, An American Childhood. I find it oddly comforting that she understands what it is to fall in love with those first words we splatter on the page. Here's a quote from her book, The Writing Life.

Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared--relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.
Ha! My first read-in-front-of-anybody piece was a short story for a creative writing class. It was a short story, right? My professor told me to lose most of the beginning and shave at least 4,000 words off. Ouch! I cut about 10,000 words off the front of Goodness & Mercy. But I kept those words in a file I titled, "Wonderful Words to Save." It's a lot easier to cut unnecessary words, if you tuck them away. I've actually used some of those wonderful words in other places. I'm wondering how the other Novel Matters ladies decide what to keep and what to cut, especially at the beginning of a piece.

I heard a speaker say at a writers' conference that we need to open our novels exactly where the story begins. That may seem like an obvious concept, but sometimes we do forget. I know I do. We want to set the stage, so to speak, introducing the reader to the setting--macro and micro; and to the characters, giving plenty of background so they'll understand them better when the scene actually begins; and giving plenty of backstory so the reader will have a grasp of the conditions that led to the story that's about to unfold. Go ahead, write all that. Consider it a warm-up to the real writing. Because once you get past all that, once the stage is set, once the director is ready to call, "Action!", THAT'S where you want to begin, and not a moment before. I love nothing better than to pick up a novel I know nothing about, open to the first page, read a paragraph or two, and say, "Wait a minute. What?" Then go back and read it again because I'm completely lost. Well, that's how it should be. My daughter Mindy when she was growing up, would walk into the middle of a conversation, listen for a moment, and say, "Wait, start over," because she wanted to hear everything she missed. But getting into a novel is not like walking into a conversation. It's stepping into a completely unknown situation and MOVING FORWARD to find out what it's all about. The reader should have a plethora of questions about all kinds of things when she begins reading. And turning pages, one after another, is how she'll get answers. At least she will if the author knows what he or she is doing. Because it's the author's job to anticipate and answer those questions, to supply a satisfying experience for all involved.


Marian said...

As a reader I am saying, "Yes, yes, that's what I want."

As a writer I am saying, "Good insight, but how do I truly know where the story begins?"

Sharon K. Souza said...

Marian, once you decide who and what the story is about, get right to the heart of it. There will be time later on for backstory, to fill in gaps, but get as close to the inciting incident as you can with that opening chapter.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Now that's advice I can use.
Is there a rule about when backstory comes in? No sooner than chapter ?????

Sharon K. Souza said...

Cherry, "they" say no backstory for the first 40 or 50 pages. I tend not to wait that long. What's important is to get the reader into the immediate story, then begin to weave in the backstory. The operative word is "weave." Avoid too much at any one time. No information dumps.