Writing Advice
- Introduction
- A room of one's own?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Where do I begin?
- What books do I need?
- How important is research?
- Should I join a writers' circle?
- Literary terms
- Typing it up
- Sending it off
- Penbenders
- Creating characters
- Constructing the story
- Short Fiction


Where do I begin?

Who cares? The beginning is the very last thing you should worry about.

Plunge in. Start writing anything you can any way you can. Even if you’ve got the storyline mapped out, don’t feel obliged to begin at the beginning – lots of writers begin with whatever scene is strongest in their minds. It might be a significant turning point, it might be the very end. It doesn’t matter.

Perhaps you don’t have a story, just a character. Let’s call him Billy. Billy’s doing what? Where? When? Why? Ah…why he’s doing it could be the whole point of the story, so at least you know how you don’t want to start, and you’ve begun to develop the plot into the bargain, because now you want to know why Billy’s doing what he’s doing, and your imagination is taking off.

Maybe you only have a scene. You don’t know what it’s about, but there it is, and it wants to be written. So write it; the image of a woman in a cloak on the cob at Lyme Regis was all John Fowles had when he began to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

If you write whatever is in your head, the mere act of putting the words down on paper will help whatever it is come into focus, and you’ll begin to see where you want to go next. And don’t worry if where you want to go next isn’t what happens next – that doesn’t matter either. You might have thought of another character, and want to develop him or her. You might have imagined some background to the scene which will have to be in place long before the scene itself, or something that’s going to happen way in the future. Don’t worry about that. Just get it down.

I write my books from beginning to end, just as they are read, but the words I put down on the blank page will not necessarily remain at the beginning, or at all – I removed the first chapter of my first novel altogether. But writing it got me under way, brought the characters into being, and gave them a setting to move around in. What they were doing in that first chapter was significant, but the result of what they were doing was even more significant, and I chose to start with that result – a dead body.

Perhaps all you know is that you want to write, but you have no story, no plot, no characters. That’s not at all unusual, and if that is how you feel, then perhaps you could try one or two of the Penbenders, because that will get you writing about something, and once you’re doing that, a story could emerge. Or try writing about yourself – fictionalise your day. Write about it in the third person, perhaps. Make the day happen the way you would have liked it to happen; daydream. It’s all creative, and if you are a writer, a story will come.

Finally, it’s possible that you have a finished novel, and you still don’t know where it should start. If you can, put it away for a couple of weeks. Longer, if possible. Then take it out, and read it. You might find that a sentence half-way through the first chapter would be perfect for the opening. You might find out you don’t need all the stuff that went before it, or that you do, but not right at the start. Or you might find that what you’ve got is what you want, but that it could be punchier, or more intriguing, or less mystifying. Or you might – just might - have begun exactly as you should, but you just didn’t realise you had.

Before you turn that draft into your final manuscript – that’s when you make sure that the opening is as good, as arresting as you can make it; that’s when you lop off the first chapter, or write the one you need to insert before what you’ve written; that’s when you move all that background detail to a little later on, so that the story begins with significant action, rather than exposition, or take a step back and set the scene.

What makes a good beginning? Well, Horace said that it was a good idea to take the audience right into the middle of things as if they knew already, and even though he said that two thousand years ago, it’s still a good idea. (Most of what Horace said is worth listening to.) The reader won’t mind having to wait for a page or two before he understands why your opening character is involved in a furious row, or hysterical with laughter, or running for his life. Providing he can believe in this character and his situation, the reader will be intrigued, and that is what will make him turn the page, in order to find out what’s going on, what brought it about, and – vitally – what is going to happen next.

But not all novels begin in the middle of the action – sometimes doing that means that there will be too much exposition later on, when you explain to the reader what happened before he got there. That can hold up the story, and leave the reader feeling as though he’s marking time.

Then, a slower build up is necessary. But slow doesn’t equal boring; what you are doing is introducing the reader to your characters, letting him get to know them before the drama begins, and getting to know someone new is rarely boring. It’s sometimes a good idea, in that situation, to use humour, which serves two purposes; one, it entertains the reader and stops him wondering when the action’s going to start, and two, light-heartedness throws the subsequent drama into relief, making it that much more dramatic.

The couple laughing and joking moments before one of them is run over by a bus, the delivery-boy whistling cheerily before finding the body - these are clichéd situations these days, especially on TV - but that, in effect, is what you might try to achieve, if with a little more subtlety. You show things and people ticking along nicely, making the reader smile, and then…whatever. The volcano erupts. The man gets a Dear John.  The woman discovers she’s pregnant. The headmaster finds out his son cheated in an exam.

The reverse works to some extent, in humorous novels; something apparently serious turning out to be funny can be very effective. But it’s as well to indicate that a novel is humorous as soon as possible, even with the blackest of humour. Irony is something that is lost on most readers; face that now, and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache, believe me!

Whatever kind of novel you’re writing, the rule of thumb is to ask yourself what event brings your story into being, and to start as close in time to that event as you possibly can. In the case of my first novel, it was the murder of a young woman, and in the end, I began with her body being found.

I use the words ‘in the end, I began’ advisedly: the opening is very important when you’re trying to impress an agent or publisher, but no one needs to see the first draft but you, so start any way at all, and think about the beginning when everything is a little clearer, a little more ordered.

In other words, don’t give a thought to the beginning until you’ve got to the end.


Jill McGown
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