When I go back and reread novels I’ve written, I usually find that the first few chapters aren’t very good. They start with back-story instead of action, or the characters seem a little too cut-out (i.e., Handsome Lord Eligible meets Lovely Lady Marriagable). By about the second or third chapter, the story picks up steam, and I know who the hero or heroine are, and things get interesting. But oh! those first few pages always need a lot of work when I get back to them.
And I hate rewriting. I do it, but I hate it, and in this current novel project, I am doing everything I can think of to minimize the rewriting that’s going to be required after I finish it. But, on the other hand, I need the experience of writing those first ten pages to get to know my characters. It’s how they come to life for me.
So I’ve thought of something that – I hope – will solve my problem of slow or cliché beginnings: I’m going to start writing the story a chapter or two before it starts.
For instance, the story I’m writing now starts when the hero is arrested. He and the heroine are traveling from Paris to Calais when the Treaty of Amiens is broken, and an order goes out from Napoleon to arrest every Englishman in France. (This really happened, btw, and trapped a couple thousand tourists overseas for years.)
You can see why the book should start there, right? It’s where the action commences! It’s the first big disaster!
It’s exactly where the reader ought to start the story. But I am coming to see that it’s not exactly where the writer should start the story. I need to start a couple of days earlier, when the hero and heroine leave Paris. I need those hours in the carriage, where they have a few casual conversations, getting to know one another (suitably chaperoned, of course). I need to see what she notices in the countryside they’re passing through and what’s going on in his head as he prepares to see his family again.
Even though I think I know these two characters pretty well, I need ten or so pages of writing their dialogue, transposing their thoughts and observing their body language before I drop them in the middle of the first disaster. Because when the curtain goes up and the action starts, I want to know exactly how they’ll react. Not how I’d react, or how Cardboard Lord Wonderful would react, but how these two – how Thomas and Eve – will react to being suddenly caught on the wrong side of a war.
I bet it’s going to be exciting.