The First Words

In a Q&A, my publisher Orca asked me which part of a book is my favourite to write. I answered honestly (and boringly) that the climax is my favourite. It is, but there was a close second, and I wanted to talk about it. I love the first words.

Now I’m talking about the beginning of the actual first draft, mind, not the outlining I do beforehand. Outlining, to be honest, can be a bit of a pain. When I’m working at that level on the story I often feel like I’m trying to hold too much in my head at once. It gives me headaches.

But then I get to the real beginning of the book, writing the words readers will actually see. Beginnings always feel like a puzzle box to me, and I love puzzles. I need to find the right way in to the story. I already know more or less what’s going to happen in that first chapter, but I don’t know how it will happen yet. Do I need to start in medias res, or does this story require me to establish normalcy before I take readers into the weird stuff? Do I start with dialogue or description? Is this the story where I finally attempt first person narration?

That first chapter generally takes me a few days, and a lot of false starts. I try something and it feels wrong. So I pace for a while, and I try another angle, and it still doesn’t fit—maybe the protagonist’s voice is wrong, or her motivation is underdeveloped. Most times, I write the first two pages four or five times before I find my way in. But once I find the right opening, it clicks into place and the rest of the chapter spills out fast. That feeling, of finding the right way in, is incredibly satisfying.

It also feels terribly inefficient, to write the same section over and over, but it makes my brain hum with delight anyway. When I start, and it goes wrong, it gives me clues for my next attempt. Each time I get closer, and I’m learning the story along the way. And then once I find it, I have to go back to the outline and figure out what damage I’ve done to my story structure, because it never goes quite as planned. If I was tracking my daily word count at this point I would probably sink into a depression. It’s slow, and it’s redundant. But it’s so, so much fun.