In February, obeying the rules of what they call the Balenchesky System in writing classes, I threw away my novel draft (then about a third done), deciding to keep (more-or-less) one third of the storyline. I couldn’t wait to get started on a new beginning. In March, having tried out five or six first chapters, I was so thoroughly disgruntled with beginnings that I swore them off, claiming an intention to simply not have one. In April I wrote Chapter 2. By the middle of May, in a change of fates, I had not only written a beginning but completed the first four chapters of what had come to be known tentatively as The Rub. On the last day of June I finally decided to blog about it.
Beginnings are hard. I used to think beginnings were easy, but that’s just because all I ever wrote were beginnings. In a whoosh of inspiration I’d splash across the page a brilliant beginning for a tale—probably the most brilliantist thing ever—but come to think of it, it wasn’t really a beginning at all (even if brilliant), because what kind of beginning exists without the other bits, the meat of the story?
But it turns out the more I know about a story at the start, the more raw data I have to obsess about. Unfortunately there’s no opportunity to blithely splash down whatever comes to mind. What I mean is: I splashed down five or six or ten beginnings, and none of them were any good. When it came to The Rub, I obsessed a lot.
Disclaimer: If your eyes go all crossed trying to follow this, skip to the next paragraph. It’s okay. I would.
With my beginning chapters I needed to (according to all those beginner’s writing books) introduce the main characters, establish the setting, provide a fair sense of the mood of the story, suggest the coming action, grab the reader, establish (I ran out of synonyms) point-of-view, and be funny. Unfortunately, when it came to my beginning, these things conflicted with each other in myriad surprising and aggravating ways. I wanted to impart a sense of the status quo of my character’s lives before the disrupting action of the novel, but it turns out that status quo stuff is incredibly dull; I wanted to jump straight into the action, because that’s what is interesting (or at least I hope it is), but if I started with the action there was no context and things fell flat. I wanted the first chapter to be funny, but since the comedy comes from characters and situations, the first chapter can’t be funny, because our reader doesn’t know the characters and no situations have really gotten underway. To make the first chapter funny I’d have to write a scene with broad humor, but that scene, in my many attempts, never really worked toward establishing enough of the other requirements. I wanted to grab the reader, but I didn’t want to do anything cheesy, like starting with some cliffhanger. (I hate that!) I wanted to win the trust of my reader with my best, most poetic, most wonderfully descriptive writing, but that sort of thing can really bog down the chapters that are supposed to do all that grabbing of the reader I mentioned. I couldn’t really use my protagonist’s point-of-view, because… well, because! And on and on and on. And then on some more. I forget now what all the conflicts were. But, on and on and on they went, and on and on and on, and so on.
For those of you who skipped straight to this paragraph (which is most of you), congratulations. Smart. Anyway, to get you skippers up to speed, suffice it to say that there was an obsessive’s dream of complications to be wrangled when crafting my beginning. So what I did, as I said earlier, was swear off beginnings. I simply wouldn’t have one. Who needs ‘em? So then I obsessed over Chapter 2 for quite a while, and ultimately (no fabrication or even exaggeration here) I cut off the beginning of Chapter 2 and just kept the rest. And it was good. And somehow, against all reason, against all odds, fueled by a magnificent, exhausting burst of creativity from my success with Chapter 2, in a whoosh of inspiration, I splashed across the page a brilliant beginning for a tale—probably the most brilliantist thing ever.
If only it had been the beginning to my novel. Hee hee, har har.
But seriously, it was a pretty good beginning. At the time I wrote: “It’s quite gratifying to produce something that I know I couldn’t have written a year ago, or even six months ago.” So, pretty good then, relatively speaking, of course.
Later, without quite so much obsession, I wrote chapters 3 and 4, which took longer than could be expected, but that’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect.
All in all, in the splendor of its wonderful design, its sheer masterful compromise, it’s a beginning that fulfills absolutely none of the requirements I set forward as critically, vitally, pivotally essential for my beginning. But you saw that one coming a mile away.
Next week: The chapters following the beginning are actually pretty hard, too