If At First It Doesnt Start Start Again

Now if all this discussion makes a beginning sound crucial and complicated, it is. But then, so are middles. So are endings.

If you have a story idea, then don't worry about the beginning. Get your story told, all the way through, at least in first draft.

As I've said before, stories change in the telling. Often you'll find that what you thought was going to be the heart of the story ends up as kind of an appendix, and the story's true motion and true meaning have gone someplace you never expected. And if and when that happens, the original beginning (if you had one) is going to be the wrong beginning anyway. It will need rethinking, re-imagining.

The Dirty Word

Now I'm going to use a dirty word. Otherwise strong writers shudder and flinch when they hear it. REVISION.

Any story worth the telling is worth revising. Remember Melville's Bulkington, who fell overboard the first night out of port? If you have such vestigial evidence of a false beginning, be tidier than Melville: go back and change it. Make your story one single solid thing, itself, with nothing left that could stand to be omitted without weakening it, nothing omitted or left sketchy that really needs to be developed for the story to have its proper impact.

Don't assume first thoughts are always best thoughts. Second thoughts, about something already well along in the process of becoming, are often better, more insightful thoughts because they're about something concrete—this short story, this novel— instead of something vague and theoretical, a set of intentions, a blur of feelings not yet fleshed out into a complex of incident and personality.

Be thinking about your opening, but don't worry about it. If it doesn't come, or come to life, right away, skip over it and write the next scene with just a few notes on what you want the beginning to have done and established, what groundwork it will have laid, for what comes afterward, the part you're working on now. And keep writing away until you have one whole first draft done. Then go ahead and start the kind of invention, addition, and deletion only possible in solid second-draft writing.

I don't know if William Golding knew he was going to need a conch when he began writing Lord of the Flies. It's altogether possible that, realizing how important some tangible, visible symbol of leadership was becoming in the story's middle, he went back and stuck the conch on that beach for Ralph to find and for Piggy to identify. Be ready to do the same, once your story has started talking to you and letting you know what it needs, instead of what you thought it was going to need.

In other words, a bad beginning shouldn't be the end—not if you realize you'll often need to go back and write it all over anyway, even when you initially thought you got it right the first time around.

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