Monday, June 9, 2008

Auspicious beginnings: An exercise for writers

I'm working on a sort of fiction lab. Let's call it ... genesis.

As a newspaper editor, I'm acutely aware of the importance of the lead. It has the capacity to put your reader to sleep -- or at least to turn them away from the page in search of coffee, ANYTHING, to keep them awake.

A writer once told me she'd been instructed never to start a sentence with a boring little word like a, the, it. I have tried to live by that idea and to write by it, but more and more I'm noticing that great beginnings can have humble words leading the charge.

I am born. (David Copperfield.) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (A Tale of Two Cities.)

The lead sentence or paragraph functions as the door in. If you don't like the door, you probably won't go in. Make your door as austere or beautiful or ornate or breathtaking as you hope the story will be.

But remember this: while some writers can write unless they have the lead, I feel it's often best to let the lead "bubble up" after the research/writing is substantially done. It's like letting the beauty of a grain of wood tell you what a carving wants to be.

In search of the best of beginnings, I have started reading the first paragraphs of books I admire, and then the first paragraphs of their chapters.

Try this. Take a book you like and read all of its beginnings, just a paragraph or so. If the writer has genius, it starts there. This will tell you -- well, VOLUMES, about their style.

I did this with James Russo's Nobody's Fool, and found myself getting into the book in a way I hadn't before.

Here's another "beginnings" exercise, one that editors do, day in and day out: Take a so-so story and give it a face lift by rewriting the lead concept.

Here's a toast to auspicious beginnings!

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