how to start a novel: looking at the first pages after the end

When you finish your novel, after mapping, plotting, typing, and deleting hundreds of sentences, paragraphs, and pages, you finally reach – The End – you may find after building a grand story that the opening is lacking.

And when you go to submit your beloved book, and many agents ask you to paste the first 5 or 10 pages into the body of your email, the last thing you want is a lacking beginning.

Leigh woke up at seven-thirty instead of her usual five. 

My first sentence was lacking: 

First of all, who cares? There is no sense of urgency. It’s boring and makes no sense to the reader just starting the book.

So, how do you start a novel?

One line I always think about is the best first line ever from E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they set the table for breakfast.”

Where is Papa going with that axe? What will he use it for? So starts the story of a fine pig and his genius spider friend Charlotte.

I went through all my books, looking for great first lines. I mean – my novel is long. Complex. I am deeply invested in the value it will bring. I can’t open it with a dud.

Here are two other first lines I found incredible:

“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

That pulls you into the story; you want to know what happens while introducing the Richardson family and the setting of Shaker Heights.

Another was this: “Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest.”

Interestingly, that gives us only a little information, just the voice of the narrator, who is no longer six but likes books. It goes on, “It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal.”

That tells me this will not be a boring book.

One of the best things about writing is – revision. You can change things!

For the first round of queries, I changed it to:

The discordant ring of her cell phone pulled her out of a deep sleep, and Leigh fumbled on the nightstand, around her laptop and pile of personal growth books, to answer it. 

I was happy with that when I sent it out, and now looking at it again, it doesn’t feel right. Too long. I don’t like the word ‘discordant’ – it’s distracting.

In April, a writer friend asked me to send the first 50 pages to him, and again I looked over the first page, and I was still unhappy with the opening. So I changed it again:

The discordant ring of her cell phone pulled Leigh out of a restless slumber.

I decided to keep ‘discordant’ although I may take it out in the future. And I will take myself on a field trip to the bookshop to look at other first lines, spend the day ruminating and daydreaming, and hope that inspiration will bring me the perfect start to my story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.