The Writing Life–Where to Begin the Book

Thursday is a day to talk about writing! The writing life. Stuff writers do.

I’m teaching an online workshop this month on manuscript revisions. Some authors love to write the first draft but hate revisions. I’m one of those who hate writing the first draft–it’s downright painful, and every word is like pulling a tooth. Revisions, however, I love.

One of our first lessons is about beginnings and how important they are. The opening scene sets the tone for your novel. It should introduce readers quickly to your voice, genre and setting, your opening POV character, and your character’s initial conflict.

First scenes have always been important, but in these days of the free sample chapter download and proliferation of free/cheap digital books, it’s more important than ever. In 2011, according to Bowker, there were 87,201 books released in the U.S. Four years later, in 2015, want to guess how many books were published?

That would be almost 1 million new titles, an estimated 435k self-published via Createspace alone. That’s just in the U.S. Add backlist titles and classics, and readers had 129 million books from which to choose.

If you prorate that over 12 months, it means that every single month, there are 83,000-plus new books released, or an average of 2,700 new books published PER DAY. Some of those books are by people like Nora Roberts and Stephen King and James Patterson, who are guaranteed bestseller status and shelf space at Walmart. Some are by Uncle Bob and Aunt Gertie, who wrote a little something for the grandkids and aren’t worried about how many books they sell on Amazon.

Most of those books, however, are written by folks like me. People who want to sell books but don’t have the name recognition to guarantee those sales.

So, now I have to look at my little baby book, the darling I’ve worked on so hard, and know that the day it’s released into the big, bad world, there are at least 2,700 other authors doing the same thing, with the same hopes and dreams, on that very same day.

So the beginning has to be right. When I finish a draft, the first thing I do is to take a hard look at the opening scene and think about whether it should open in a different place. Can I lop off chapter one, start with what’s currently chapter two, and have a stronger beginning?

With BELLE CHASSE, I originally began the book with a dinner scene at Jean Lafitte’s house in the Beyond, with DJ feeling sorry for herself and the talk turning to war. I realized that was a bad place to begin–there was too much talking and too many characters in the scene. If I began with the original chapter two, it would have gotten us to the inciting event of the book quicker–something that happens to Eugenie’s sister, but then I felt I cheated readers who’d been left hanging at the end of PIRATE’S ALLEY.

So at the last minute, I added a new chapter one that picked up immediately where PIRATE’S ALLEY left off, with our friends arriving in the Beyond in the transport, injured and in shock. Instead of just saying that DJ had a bullet removed, I got to add what ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the book–and the last scene I wrote, which was Jean Lafitte (aka “Dr. Strangepirate”) handling the bullet removal.

So…how about you? Have you ever read a book you wished had started in a different place?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

6 thoughts on “The Writing Life–Where to Begin the Book

  1. I think the first chapter in a book is very important for the new readers. Maybe even more important for the followers of a series who have waited a long time for that next book. I get excited in the first chapter. The first chapter of Belle Chasse was just what we needed. I don’t think I’ve read a book that I wished started elsewhere. I put my trust in the author. After all they already went thru those revisions, those improvements, for our reading enjoyment.

    • You’re right, Roger. I tend to think of new readers, but the first book of Belle Chasse was for series readers who needed a resolution to that last part of Pirate’s Alley. I figure there aren’t many (any?) who’d pick up the fifth book in a series they hadn’t read. Although a reviewer did that with Belle Chasse, then gave it a bad review for being confusing. Duh. LOL. I would think so!

  2. I agree that the first chapter is what will suck me into a story. I can’t think of any books where I wanted a first chapter. I have had first chapters which turned me off of a book.

  3. For me the whole first chapter needs to hook me. Even if the first chapter sucks (and there’s been a few) I’m one of those who’ll give it between 50 and 100 pages before I totally give up. Usually if I make it a 100 pages, I’ll keep reading till the end though I can think of a few that I’ve read further (cause someone just KNEW I’d love it) and just said Hell No! there are too many good books out there to suffer this!