A New Beginning…

This blog cycle we are supposed to be dispensing wisdom about staying physically and emotionally healthy as writers… *twiddles thumbs* <– which makes my carpal tunnel flare so I’m going to stop now.

I wrote a post awhile back on my treadmill desk which has done more than anything to get me healthier and more focused on my writing. I still read my reviews (slaps hand) and hate release days (pass the wine.) My “wisdom” is rather lacking.

Instead I’d thought I’d pull a Monty Python…a now for something completely different!!

I’m going to discuss beginnings. Like literally the beginning of your manuscript. I really don’t consider myself an expert on anything writing related. I’m always looking to learn from someone farther along on the journey. So I was surprised after my editor read my latest manuscript when she said, You should teach a class on how to write first chapters.

I scoffed and replied back that there was no method to my madness, but it got me thinking… I’ve never changed the first chapter of any of my books. From the time I drafted the first chapter through all my own edits and my editors’ developmental edits. That would be nine that have gone through professional editing, so maybe I’m doing *something* kind of right. Also, I regularly judge unpublished contests in both historical and contemporary categories which honestly helps my writing as much as the contestants. I read my own work with a more critical eye.

It’s no surprise the biggest issue with first chapters is managing backstory. Two big problems I see:

  1. The “Coming Into Town” beginning. This can be in a car or carriage and usually involves the hero or heroine ruminating on what is bringing them back to their hometown or why they’re moving into a new town. It’s usually a big fat stinky info dump. Doesn’t matter if the heroine is describing the scenery in-between introspection about her family drama or getting fired from her job. Unless something active happens, like she gets pulled over by the cops or gets beset by a highwayman or rammed in the bumper by the hero, just skip it. Sorry, but it’s boring.
  2. The “As You Know” conversation. For a new author (or even experienced one) this can be a deceptive backstory dump. I typically see this conversation taking place between a main and secondary character. For example, maybe it’s the heroine giving the lowdown to her best friend. Except, it’s really a sneaky way of imparting backstory to the reader. If you can add in the phrase “As you know” before dialogue, you have a problem.

As you know  “I had to come home because my grandmother is sick.”

“Your brother should be helping,” her best friend said.

As you know  “He is a wastrel and at the clubs until all hours, the scapegrace!”

If the two characters are close, then it’s a conversation they would have already had. Plus, it’s usually mostly telling with no showing. Better to start with the brother coming in drunk and the sister confronting him in the wee hours. That would impart the needed knowledge plus the ability to weave in a gamut of emotions from frustration to love.

The best piece of advice I read about backstory came from a Margie Lawson class (I think she got it from someone else, though). Write all the tidbits of backstory for your characters on a piece of glass. Then, shatter that glass. Pick up only the most important facts. Facts that the reader *must know.* Sliver them in throughout the first third of the book. Discard the rest.

I also want to touch on prologues. I’ll admit, I love the damn things, but the overall consensus is to avoid them. My way around this? CALL THEM CHAPTER 1! All three of my Cottonbloom books start with an incident between my hero and heroine that took place many years in the past. That scene was needed to frame their present. But, make sure it’s absolutely necessary. Don’t use a prologue as a means to impart backstory. It must reveal something vitally important about your hero or heroine or their relationship with each other (not necessarily romantic.) If you can lose the prologue and still understand the story, then…lose the prologue.

I would posit that the advice “Start your book with action!” should really be “Start your book with the inciting incident!” The inciting incident is what upsets the balance of your characters’ lives and sets the story in motion. This “incident/action” doesn’t have to be a fight or a car crash, it can be something much more subtle.

For example, the book I’m working on now is Book 4 in the Cottonbloom series (and incidentally has no prologue, because it didn’t *need* one.) In Chapter 1, the heroine wants to surprise her fiancé with work on his classic Camaro and is dropping it off at a restoration garage. Except, she finds her best friend’s panties under the seat. The hero is the mechanic witnessing this incident.

Another piece of often heard advice is that your hero and heroine should meet in Chapter 1. I do agree you should get them on the page as soon as possible, but sometimes the inciting incident only involves the hero (for example) and it snowballs to include the heroine. I have at least two books where the hero and heroine don’t meet until Chapter 2 or very late in Chapter 1. On the other hand, the hero meeting the heroine can be the inciting incident. This is often the case for a romance. For example, maybe the highwayman who stops our heroine’s carriage *is* the hero.

What about you? Agree or disagree? Do you have any advice for beginnings?

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