Skip to main content

False Starts

False starts are a thing I assume every writer has to deal with.

Sometimes these false starts happen because you merely tried starting the story in the wrong place. Other times, you're trying to get a story out into the world that you haven't completely thought through and you've picked the wrong opening because you didn't really know where you were heading.

And sometimes, you just find that the story just wasn't working the way you hoped, in the same way an experiment might go wrong. You put all the ingredients in the beaker of that first chapter and it blows up in your face instead becoming the concoction that will turn lead into gold.

I'm working on a manuscript right now and spent the last few days crafting a first chapter that I thought was going to work. But the more I lied in bed, mulling over where I was going next and how to make things pop for a reader, I realized my opening was the wrong one. It needed to either be backstory that we don't ever get to read in detail, or it needs to come as information we get much later in the story to help explain a character.

I'm notorious for beginning stories too early. Operation: Montauk and The Serpent's Head both had a chapter or three cut from the beginning because I tried starting the story too early when I sat down to write. On the other hand, I thought I'd learned my lesson with The Aeronaut, and found that I'd started about three chapters too late. It's a balancing act. And I think I'm finding it, but it's taken me constant traveling on that tightrope to find it.

Part of finding that balance is having great early readers that can help you find your bearings. Another part of it is having the guidance and instincts of a good editor to help you start your story in exactly the right spot.

And we ask ourselves what makes a great opening to a book. There are a lot of answers to that question and they could all be right or wrong for your book and you'll never know until you spend some time exploring and developing your own instincts. Do you want to open with a hook, with your characters in media res? Or do you want to start with a day-in-the-life of an utterly fascinating character, slowly building to the moment their life changes? Or do you start with the moment the character is scrambling to deal with that life changing moment?

There are a few things I know you probably don't want to do, though. You don't want to have your character wake up in a situation they have no idea about. It's been done to death. You probably don't want to open with a passage of your character walking past a mirror and describing themselves to the audience, either.

More than that, you need to read lots of great books and watch great films and see how they open. What is it that makes their opening great? What can you do to bring that into your own unique story? That factors into what we talked about last week with needing to always be learning. You need to explore what others are doing to see how you can improve upon it. And it never hurts to approach a piece of writing to work on a specific aspect of your writing that needs improvement.

More importantly, you need to be able to recognize one of these false starts and start over without stressing out about how much work you might need to throw out. That chapter I wrote that isn't going to work as the opening? I figured out what I needed to do with it after pondering the structure of Casablanca. It was information that won't be as interesting until you know the characters better and how it affects them. So I cut the whole chapter, pasted it to the end of the document, and have all of those details to fall back on and reference in oblique ways at the true beginning of the story. And when the audience needs to know what happened, that old opening chapter can be tailored to fit that purpose.

I haven't really lost anything and, to be honest, I might understand the story better than I did before.

Sometimes it'll happen with short stories, too. It's much harder to restructure a short story like I did with this novel. You might just need to put it away and let the problem work on you and then come back to it once you've had a break-through. There's no shame in that whatsoever.

False starts are a part of writing.

Figure out how to use them to your advantage.

I did a really fascinating piece for HowStuffWorks about how BB-8 got his voice. It came out of an interview with Matt Wood and David Acord, who are nominated for Oscars for their work editing the sound effects of The Force Awakens. It's worth a read.

I also got another piece about favorite quotes from The Force Awakens up to StarWars.Com.

I'm doing a regular gig at now that's all about Ridiculous History. The first installment came out today and is about Mother Prodgers, the scourge of London Cabbies.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!


Popular posts from this blog

The Missed Opportunities of Days Gone By

“Hello?” I said into the phone, accepting the call from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hey,” the feminine voice on the other replied, as though I should know the sound of her voice. At a loss, I said, “Can I help you?” “It’s Brooke.” Her name stopped me. It couldn’t possibly be her. We hadn’t spoken in years, a decade perhaps. “Brooke?” “Yeah, Brooke Baker. This is Mark, right?” Jesus Christ. It was her. “Yeah, it is Mark. Brooke. Wow. How are you? It’s been a long time since… well… since anything.” “I know.” “So, how are you doing?” “Okay, I suppose…” Her voice belied her words, though. Something was up. “I… It’s just been so long and I guess I wanted to hear your voice.” “I don’t think I had a number for you. Ever. I offered a couple of times, but…” “I was a brat back then.” And that’s how a random phone call turned into a two-and-a-half hour catch-up session. We spoke of everything under the sun: people we still knew, how different we were, h

Anatomy of a Scene: The Third Man

It's time again to break down a classic scene. One that's well-written and, in my view, a fine example of excellent craft. I've done some of these articles from books (like The End of the Affair   and Starship Troopers ) and other movies (like Citizen Kane , City Lights , Raiders of the Lost Ark , and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), but now it's time to take a look at a scene from The Third Man . It blends the best of Orson Welles (as he's in the film and drives this scene) and Graham Greene, who wrote this particular screenplay. Before we get to the scene, we need some context. The Third Man is a tale of the black market in Vienna, just after World War II. It's about a cheap, dime-store Western novelist named Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) and his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) Lime offered Martins a job in Vienna, so Martins leaves America and arrives, only to find that Harry Lime is dead. Penniless, without a friend or reason to be

Anatomy of a Scene: All the President's Men

All the President's Men is one of those perfect movies. Based on a stunning true story with a brilliant screenplay from William Goldman (we've already gone through one of his scenes here with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), it's a movie that brings all of the elements of character, plot, and drama together in a way that makes me really love and admire it.  The scene I want to go through is one that comes during a particularly trying time in the film. For those unaware, this film tells the tale of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who cracked the Watergate story. And now, looking back on it, it all feels like one big victory, but it was marked by a number of defeats.  This is them reporting to their skeptical editor, Ben Bradlee (played brilliantly by Jason Robards) about where their investigation is at. Immediately preceding Woodward and Bernstein walking in, a salesman is trying to sell Bradlee on features his papers doe