Friday, April 9, 2010

Great Beginnings

By Susan Ishmael- Poulos

I'm terrible at beginnings.

And everyone knows that whether it is beginning new friendships or the beginning of a novel, the most critical impression you will make is in the first thing that comes out of your mouth, or out of your pen. My mother always warned me about first impressions. Now I'm writing a novel and that old advice keeps coming back to me: "Always smile," she would say. "You need to make sure you make a good first impression!"

Starting a novel should be easy: just start at the beginning. It's a simple concept, yet determining when the story begins seems as complicated as determining when life begins: the story, like life, is always there. Where is the beginning? I took a look at my manuscript. My first impression? It was bad. In fact, what once was "just fine" now seems boring and pointless. I actually heard myself saying out loud to a friend and proofreader, "Just get to chapter three. That's when everything happens." The minute I said it, I knew I was all wrong. What was I thinking? I was setting myself up for a horrible first impression. I certainly wasn't leading with a smile.

The key to a successful manuscript is hooking the reader immediately, according to Noah Lukeman, agent and author of The First Five Pages. His point is that if the agent isn't interested in the first five, nothing will matter, because your manuscript will never make it beyond the agent's desk. Lukeman goes on to say that rather than the first five pages, the title of his book should have been The First Five Sentences, because that's the real test of whether an agent is going to keep reading or not. It's simple: apply your best possible effort into your first impression. Then carry that diligence through the rest of your work. By the time we complete it, it is a polished and perfected piece that will not only engage an agent, but the publisher as well. Whether we like it or not, that's the only way our manuscript can ever become a book, held in the hands of the most important critic of all: the reader.

Luckily, as writers, we are in control of our first face. What do I want to tell the reader first? I dove in to my manuscript and started moving things around. I chose to begin with the action instead of history and the weather (I mean, really. What was I thinking?) I read Lukeman's book again. I searched online for blogs and articles full of to-do and don't-do lists for opening a manuscript. I thought about the reader, not the agent, and attempted to read my first few chapters as though they were new to me. Then I slashed, cut, arranged, and wrote.

Is it that polished and perfected piece that we all seek? Far from it. Yet I think it's better. As I learn, I implement the edits that I think will make it a stronger manuscript. By going back to the beginning, perhaps I can make this novel what I want it to be. Hopefully, I can pull together a great beginning and make that wonderful first impression. Because Lukeman is right: that's the only way we're ever going to get it past the first agent.


  1. I agree beginnings are tough, and not just the beginning of the book. Each chapter should also start (and end) in such a way that the reader itches to keep going. I've played around a great deal with where to start and end chapters, and many times make the break mid scene. Doing this actually helps me as a writer as well, because I'll write the whole scene before cutting it. This allows me to have a "new" chapter started instead of staring at a blank screen waiting for a beginning to come to me.

  2. Very timely post for me. Unfortunately, my beginning is my weakest point. I'm reworking it AGAIN because I know how critical this is. Fifth time's a charm?


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