On Beginnings and Planned Obsolescence

I started writing a new novel recently. I delivered my last contract book a couple of months ahead of deadline, and as a reward I’m giving myself permission to work on a spec book just because I love the story. It’s actually the second book in a trilogy I’ve been working on in the interstices between contracted work.

I haven’t yet sold book one, and I normally would be very reluctant to start something that’s a sequel to an unsold novel, but the first has only been to one editor so far and it’s flat out the best work I’ve ever done. Besides, I love the world, and I’m writing it for me as a reward.

It’s a very dark alternate history World War II YA fantasy and it’s requiring me to do a lot of research, some of which has been very frustrating. I wanted to start this second story with graduation at the Royal Edinburgh Academy of Sorcery, a military academy. I also wanted to base that graduation loosely on graduation at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, complete with the awarding of school honors. Unfortunately, despite quite a number of hours of research I haven’t been able to get a good description of the event or schedule for same.*

Now, I could have waited until I tracked down the necessary information so that I could start out the book on exactly the right note, but I think that would have been a bad choice. It is, imho, much more important to get a book going so that you can emotionally ground yourself in the story and find the places where it departs from your vision than it is to start out perfect. So that’s what I’ve done, starting the book shortly after the event I really want as my opener. I’m doing so with every intention in the world of simply discarding the first half of chapter one and I find that quite freeing.

My first chapters almost always get ripped to shreds and rebuilt after the book is about half done, because I learn so many things in the process, things that I have to go back and layer in later anyway. It’s normally a frustrating process because I put a lot of work into that chapter and I do it more than once. This time, by writing a couple of thousand words that I’m planning on throwing away from the get-go, I find myself both more open to story changes and less worried about making work for myself later. I may try to incorporate some version of this into future books.

How about you, gentle reader? How do you start a story? Does it have to have the perfect beginning for you to move into the story? Do you rough the opening and fix it later? Start with chapter two?

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*I’ve got a couple of wonderful librarians who are now trying to track down a source for me so that I can arrange an interlibrary loan, but wo

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    In all my writing, I’ve always been the sort that is paralyzed until I find the beginning I want. Not just for the novel as a whole, but for every damn scene. I can’t write a scene at all until I figure out the correct first sentence. I’ll agonize over it forever, and then once the first sentence is out, everything else pours out, like a logjam has been broken. Maybe while I’m agonizing over the beginning, the rest of the scene is quietly working itself out in my subconscious.

    It’s true when I write non-fiction as well. I remember when I was in college and taking this stupid standardized test (the CLAST, which you needed to pass to keep your state-funded financial aid) that had an essay section. We had an hour to work on the essay and I just put my head down for the first half of it. A proctor came over, worried that I had freaked out or was having a breakdown or something, and I had to tell her, “No, that’s how I write. It’s okay.” I’ve always had an arrogant self-confidence when it came to my writing skills, so I was somewhere between offended and amused by her concern. She looked at me dubiously, and I’m sure she thought I was going to fail for sure. I didn’t though. I started writing at about the half-hour mark and turned out a humorous essay I was quite pleased with.

    It’s just my way.

    Now, I may go back and change that beginning or even scrap it. But it is the beginning that allows me to write the rest of it.

    Weird, huh.

  2. 2. James Alan Gardner

    I take five or ten cracks at the first ten pages until I find a tone of voice that gives me the right chemistry. The actual content is negotiable during the rewriting process, but I have to get a voice that I think will keep me going for the many long months I’ll be spending with it.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I hammer at those first chapters, and then usually end up writing entirely new first chapters because I started in the wrong spot or else that stuff isn’t viable any more. It usually takes me a good 25-30K to really know the characters enough, which makes things harder. This last book I just turned in I interviewed the characters to help me get more in their heads because I was having a really hard time figuring out the beginning. That worked. But I absolutely cannot seem to go on past the point where research is needed without it. It’s slightly paralyzing. And I’m very linear in my approach. I admire that you can.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Diana, actually this is something of trying a new method for me. I normally get hung up on little researchy bits all through the course of a book (I have to know the big stuff before I ever get started), and since I also normally write in a very linear manner, this can be a huge delaying issue for me. It’s just never happened at the very beginning of a book before, so I’ve never had my “start the damn thing” voice in conflict with my “must know the fiddly details” voice before. I suspect the reason I’m able to get past it is because it’s the second book of a trilogy, and a true sequel which isn’t really something I’ve done before. The WebMage are semi-stand-alone series books and the rest of my stuff (unpubbed as yet) has been pure stand-alone. It’s a weird feeling, but I think I like it.

    Joe, that’s fascinating and utterly alien to the way I work things–I absolutely love how very many ways there are to write a book, and every one of them right.

    James, so do you do that before you go any further? Or does it work as an iterative process for some portion of the opening of the book? I can see how it would work both ways, though I’m more of an iterative soul myself.

  5. 5. bunnygirl

    I just assume that whatever I write at the beginning is for me and will likely be cut later. It’s to get my head in the right place so I can get to where my story really needs to start.

    I’ve taken some of those cut prologues and first chapters and made nice flash fiction out of them. :-)

  6. 6. Adam Heine

    Before I start writing for real, I do a combination of outlining and writing “random passages”. I outline because I have to know where the story’s supposed to go, and I have to know I’m starting in the right place.

    The random passages are scenes that run through my head while I’m brainstorming – usually the very scenes that get me excited about the story in the first place. I write without properly deciding who the characters are or what else is happening in the story, making stuff up as necessary, and knowing that a lot of these passages will never exist in the story. It’s freeing and gives me a chance to taste the characters and the plot before I write the real thing.

    But at some point, these methods start to fizzle and I have to start writing for real. I usually have a couple of false starts before I find the intro I like and then I’m off. That original intro will certainly be tweaked, and sometimes completely rewritten, by the final draft, but in the beginning it’s what gets me going.

  7. 7. Karen Wester Newton

    Usually but not universally the opening scene comes to me before anything else. But I try to mull the story over, plot it in my head, and have a rough idea of how i want it to end before I sit down and start writing chapter 1. I don’t outline, but I do keep separate files with plot ideas, characters descriptions, time lines and even maps that I update and refer to as I write. Very occasionally, a future scene will be so vivid in y head that I stop where I am, write that scene in its own file, and then stitch it in when I come to it.

    I have yet to meet two writers who work exactly the same way! It’s part of the fun.

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    Bunnygirl, Adam, Karen, Thanks for adding to the conversation. Karen, overall my methods are pretty similar, though I rarely write ahead. I normally have the timelines and the maps and usually several varieties of outline, working, narrative, length, etc.

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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