The End is Where We Start From

Katherine Longshore 2 Tuesday, January 24, 2012

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” -- T. S. Eliot

As Donna said yesterday, beginnings are hard.  In life and in writing.  And as intelligent as Eliot sounds in that quote, it's not really that helpful when you have a blank page in front of you.  it sounds more like you're walking up a spiral staircase created by M.C. Escher.

I know people (*ahem* not naming names) who claim that they write the first chapter of a novel first, and then write from that.  The first chapter stays – revised, yes, but its essence stays the same.

I am from the opposite side of the spectrum.  I write many, many first chapters.  I write a first chapter and then cut it, making the second chapter the first chapter.  Then I cut that.  Then I add something new.  Then I write a new second chapter, which becomes the first chapter.  And so on.  And so on.

The trouble is, that although Donna’s advice is accurate and absolutely essential, it’s awfully hard for me to apply.  There are too many places for a story to begin.  At the beginning.  In medias res.  Somewhere in between.

And sometimes, I fear I will never find the right combination.

My local critique group, which meets once a month and only reads two works at each meeting (meaning my stuff only comes up every three months) must have seen six different first chapters for GILT.  And they didn’t see all of them.  

I actually started with a prologue (I know, quelle horreur).  And then I began the story in the midst of Catherine Howard’s first affair (which would have happened when she was around twelve).  When I realized that added an extra 50 to 100 pages to an already bulky manuscript, I cut three years from my timeline (and a character from Catherine’s life, making the end of the book – and the historical accuracy – a bit tricky).

Then I took a workshop on “The Hook” and how to apply it to the first line, the first page, the third page, etc.  And played around with dramatic (perhaps melodramatic) first lines such as “Words kill,” which eventually found their way to the cutting room floor.

What does all of this mean?  Why am I telling you long and convoluted anecdotes?  Because I want to illustrate not only that all of us (well, most of us) have trouble with the first chapter.  And also to give a hint at how to find your way to one eventually.
Write the book.

Revise the book.

Repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.

From my experience, I’ve learned that I can’t write a first chapter until I know how the novel ends.  But I also need to know how the characters get to the end.  I need to know them well, I need to know their motivations, and I need to know their ultimate decisions (however much it kills me to write them – historical fiction can be so hard when your characters end up facing the ax.)

Only then can I find the beginning.  And sometimes I have to find the beginning more than once.

So my advice to you is this:  don’t spend hours upon hours and days upon agonizing weeks writing your first chapter (or your first five pages, your first fifteen or thirty or fifty pages).  Write the novel.  

Eventually – one way or another – the first chapter will come.  You can only perfect it when you know how it ends.

(Please remind me of this when I restart Book 3, and agonize over the first draft of my first chapter!)


Will definitely remind you when Book 3's in progress.

The whole faith thing can be pretty tough with writing, but the ultimate reward is...well, rewarding. Pie! Didn't Bret and/or Veronica say something about more pie?

Thanks, Beth. I'm depending on you. And you're right about the rewards. Writing what you KNOW is a kick-ass chapter or scene is one of the best rewards there is. So you just have to go out there and write another one.

More pie, anyone?

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