Don’t Stop at the Beginning

It’s that time of year again. Blackberries are starting to ripen, dark and glossy against bramble and green leaves, treasure hidden in the hedgerows. The gorgeous child and I will go and pick them soon, braving wasps and spiders and thorns to fill our plastic containers with juicy berries, ready to be washed and frozen and made into jam, enlivening pies and strudels over the winter months. I still remember dropping into the local greengrocer last summer and seeing a small punnet of berries for sale at 1.99, the lovely child looking at me with wide eyes knowing we had four large containers filled to bursting in our shopping bag, all picked for free. Does anyone else pick blackberries any more? They were rotting on the branches last year; we could not pick them fast enough.

It was also around this time last year that I finished my first draft of Oak and Mist. It was called The Oak Gate back then – I’m still considering which of the titles might be better, to be honest – comments are welcome. It was a monster of a story, over 160,000 words. Since then I’ve managed through successive edits to whittle it down to below 140,000, plus have split it into two halves, each one working as a stand-alone book. But the story hasn’t changed, nor have the characters – it was the language, as mentioned in a previous post, that needed work. And also the beginning. I have rewritten and changed the first three chapters so many times I’ve lost count, condensing the original draft from three unwieldy chapters into a few short pages. But the beginning incident, the idea that started this whole journey, has not changed – I just hadn’t been able to fix upon the best way to present it to you, dear readers. Though I think in the past month I might finally have written an opening to my own satisfaction, and for that I am grateful.

The beginning is important because it’s the part of your manuscript you send to agents and publishers in the hope they might like your work and want to read more. Most request anything from the first five pages to the first three chapters, so you want to get it right, or as near to right as possible.I have a friend who is thinking of writing a book and she recently emailed me, saying she didn’t know where to start. This is the hardest part about writing, I think. Starting. Sitting down and typing that first sentence, the pathway that leads you into the story.

There are so many wonderful examples – Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ and Jane Austen’ It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife‘ are two that come to mind straight away. And there are so many awful ones as well – there are even competitions to see who can come up with the absolute worst opening to a novel. The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one to look at if you’re interested, named for the man who came up with the immortal ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’

But the crucial thing is to start. As you can see, it’s taken me almost a year to get the start of my book the way I wanted it to read. But it didn’t stop me from writing, from continuing on with the story until it was told. For you can always go back. Until the work is published, there is always room to make changes. So don’t let a fear of starting hold you back from beginning your book. The story is there, waiting to be told. Let it out.

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