Mysterious beginnings
by Annette McCleave on January 27th, 2009

Each writer has a process unique to them. Not right, not wrong, just unique. Case in point, I chuckled when I read Jessa’s post yesterday. She and I approach the fresh beginning of Chapter One in very different ways.

For me, beginning a new book is exciting, yes, but also terrifying. Here I am, in love with my story idea, feeling warm and fuzzy about my hero and heroine, and then the worry creeps in: I won’t be able to capture those delightful feelings on paper, it’s impossible, I don’t have the skill.

Funny thing is, I’ve completed seven manuscripts and that worry continues to plague me. I think it’s because the magic in my head at the start of a new book is so wonderful, so perfect, that words seem too mundane to bring it to life. Nouns, verbs, adjectives. Subjects, predicates, punctuation. How can these unwieldy concepts possibly do the job?


Of course, my fears are always unfounded. Language has a magic all its own, and it’ll grace the pages later—in draft two or three. To get draft one started, I simply need to flip the kill switch on my internal editor, who fusses over every nuance.

My first few pages are awkward and uncomfortable. Full of fits and stops. My beloved characters are uncooperative and moody, and I realize that despite all the time I’ve spent getting to know them, they still harbor deep mysteries and act with motivations I never suspected. Motivations they still haven’t confided to me. I’m on a voyage of discovery, and there are surprises lurking in the mist, some of them requiring complete rewrites.


I’m one of those writers who can’t build on my story if I believe the foundation is unstable. This means I spend more time at the very beginning of the book than I do writing subsequent chapters. I don’t mean finding the right setting or the right starting action—although those are vital, they can be reworked—I mean testing my characters to find out how they really think and feel and act under pressure. By Chapter Four my characters and I are bosom pals. They’ve spilled the beans on the inner workings of their minds. There’s almost always a surprise or two left, but the fundamentals are down and I can move forward with confidence.

So, yes, I love to start a new project. But I also love to get the first few chapters under my belt. That’s when the story truly takes off.

Some authors are truly amazing at building an emotional connection between reader and character right from page one. What are some of your favorite reads where this happened? Did you notice it at the time, or only after you closed the book with a contented sigh?

5 comments to “Mysterious beginnings”

  1. 1

    One of the best, in my opinion, is Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I knew that character from page one. At the other end of the spectrum is Pride and Prejudice. Austen got the characters on the page right away.

    It’s an interesting problem for a writer, especially when the characters are holding out. And they do. The pests.

  2. 2

    Two great examples, Sharon.

    The Dresden series is done in 1st person, right? I find that my connection tends to occur faster with 1st person. Of course, the risk is that I’ll hate the character and never finish the book. :-(

    Pride and Prejudice is, of course, a delight. Mr. & Mrs. Bennet leap off the page in those first few pages.

  3. 3

    When it comes to great beginnings, I always reference Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly. The opening plays out between the hero & heroine writing letters to each other. You learn their personalities, their flaws. They FALL IN LOVE in those few pages and I totally believe it. It’s amazing.

    Annette, I think you’re right that the first person makes the revelation of character more immediate and visceral in a lot of ways.

  4. 4

    The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant and oh, yes, the emotional connection was immediate, powerful, and held me until the very last word of the book. It begins: “We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.” The biblical Dinah speaks to the reader directly, and those first words begin a journey of female empowerment and and what it means to be women in a man’s world. It’s a book that stays with you forever.

    But as an aside, Laura Kinsale is an all-time favorite of mine. Flowers From The Storm in particular blew me away.

  5. 5

    Both My Sweet Folly and the Red Tent sound great. I’ll have to check them out.

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