Chapter One, or
Welcome to My Novel!
By Jon Chaisson
There's a wonderful quote from Ray Bradbury
in his book Zen in the Art of Writing where he describes starting off
his writing day as jumping out of bed and landing on a landmine, and
spending the rest of the day picking up and putting the pieces all back
together. I've always loved that quote. I read it for the first time
around when I started writing seriously, and even though the description of
my writing day is very much like a lottery instead -- very random and I
never know when I'll have a winner -- I can still use that description in
other places, especially the beginnings of stories.
Ask almost anyone who writes, and they'll
say they were taught to start a story off with a bang. Figuratively or
literally, they'll drop the hapless hero into the thick of it. Who wants a
"once upon a time" preamble when the action could start now, right away?
The poor guy (or girl) will first appear in the middle of a battle, or just
have been given shocking news that they're not ready to deal with. Even if
the physical action is muted, the mental action is already going full
throttle. I've picked up books that take this route and next thing I know,
I'm twenty or so pages in and I haven't even bought the thing yet. If I've
gotten that far and I'm still in the book store, chances are I know I'll
enjoy the rest of it. That's how important openings are for the story, at
least for me. To be honest, it's not the "zinger" opening that catches me
-- it's the way in which the author has dropped me into the middle of
Trying to write such an opening to a novel,
though, is another thing entirely. Believe me, it's one of the hardest
things for any writer to do. I've written stories where the action didn't
start right away, using character description as the opener instead. I've
written stories that begin at the start of the action, or the middle of it,
or the end of it. I've also started off -- and this is my favorite trick --
with a bit of dialogue with a slight twist of discomfort to it to make the
reader wonder what's going on.
And in almost every instance, I've ended up
heavily editing and rewriting it.
So why is it that openings of stories are
always the sections that suffer the most during the editing? It could be
that I'm at the same point as the eventual reader; not quite sure what the
story is about and where it's going to lead me. When I start, Iím just as
blind as the reader and I'm hoping that I know what Iím doing. More often
than not, though, I find that my theme remains the same despite the other
editing. It's the style of my writing that changes and evolves,
leaving me to rewrite the beginning so it fits in with the rest. Another
reason for the heavy editing is the need to add in plot points that I hadn't
thought of at that stage. And as someone who rarely outlines his stories in
advance, I do quite a bit of inserting with each story I write.
When I first started editing and rewriting
my stories, I always felt it was a daunting task and one that I hated and
tried hard each time to avoid. I always tried to write each story perfectly
all the way through, each time. And once I got over that pipe dream, I fell
into another trap -- the dreaded constant rewrite. I have a
still-unfinished story that has at least four completely different
beginnings, each started because of a change in the plotline or the overall
feel of the novel, making the original start obsolete. I realized I was
writing the same scene multiple times over the course of a year, and never
getting any nearer to the end. Suffice to say, that story went through so
many permutations that I eventually gave it up out of frustration.
It wasn't until my trilogy project -- one I
started soon after that abortive story mentioned above -- that I'd decided
to do what I should have done long ago: just write the damn thing and fix it
later. It doesn't matter if it's bad at this point. I'm the only one who's
reading it at the moment.
What I soon found, however, was that it
wasn't just the first chapter or so that I needed to fix afterwards -- once
I completed the first book, I found several points that needed
fixing, points that I otherwise might have missed if I had rewritten the
beginning so many times.
Seeing any of my stories that nakedly works
to my advantage; not only do I see more of my mistakes, but the small
thrills and the big accomplishments throughout the rest of the novel shine
that much more brightly. I savor those points and rewrite the problems
until I bring everything else up to that level. And in the end, hopefully,
I get a novel that I'm more proud of than I'd expected to be.
* * *
For me, openings for novels are more
important than getting that wonderful 'zinger' of an opening line. Sure,
books like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Kurt Vonnegut's
Slaughterhouse Five, and John Updike's Rabbit, Run all have those
famous opening lines that jump right out at you (and make the writers among
you think, damn, I wish I'd written that). It's the feeling
behind them, however, the reason for them being there, that makes them
truly wonderful openings. Would Fahrenheit have worked with
90's-style irony and Guy Montag lighting up a cigarette? Would
Slaughterhouse have worked if Billy Pilgrim didn't understand what was
happening to him? Would Rabbit Angstrom have been an interesting character
if he had no interest in watching those kids play basketball? Certainly
not. And even though the now-famous opening lines are quoted endlessly now,
it's not those lines alone that make the book. It's the reason they're
there -- to tell the story. They're just words, just like any other words.
It's just that the writer knew which ones to use and how to use them.
I can't say that I'll ever make it to that
height, using the perfect words to shape the perfect opening to any of my
stories, or even that any of my openings will be as memorable. However, I
can certainly say that I have the ability to create what I think is
the perfect opening for my story. And that's all that counts for any
writer. I'm not out to write the next Great American Novel. I'm just out
to write the best damn novel I can, and one that I'm proud of. The perfect
opening is just an icing on the cake.