3 Beginnings

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings lately. What makes a “good” beginning? What makes an effective beginning? As I start to think about where I might begin my own novel, I’m driven to remember some of my favorite literary beginnings. So, in this post, I will break down three of my favorite opening scenes from recent(ish), contemporary novels in the hopes that they might teach me something about beginnings.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub: This novel follows an eclectic and dysfunctional upper-class family as they navigate their mundane and largely fixable (yet artfully written) problems while on vacation in Mallorca.

Emma Straub is an exceptional writer, and the composition of her sentences is a great testament to this. In fact, the first sentence of “The Vacationers is one of my favorite things about it: “Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.” This sentence feels like both a universal truth and a unique literary observation. It’s effective because it is immediately interesting and insightful.

This first scene follows Jim, the patriarch of the Post family, as he prepares to leave for the airport. Despite the third person voice, Straub manages to create proximity between Jim and the reader right away. Even more notable is Straub’s ability to create intrigue right away. The second paragraph of the novel consists mostly of one long sentence, part of which reads “there were things Jim would have taken out of his bags, if it had been possible: the last year of his life, and the five before that, when it came to its knees; the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades(…).” Here, Straub once more shows us her mastery over the art of structuring sentences (it really is an art, isn’t it?). With lines like that one, Straub hints at intrapersonal conflicts, begins to set up interpersonal conflicts, and presents us with an initial idea of who this character is. She achieves a surprising amount of exposition that doesn’t feel expository at all, and she does it all within the first two paragraphs.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: Blue, the only non-psychic in a family of clairvoyants, has always been told that she will kill her one true love. Despite this ominous warning, she can’t help but get involved with a group of boys from a local boarding school and their quest to find an ancient Welsh king.

Maggie Stiefvater’s one-of-a-kind Raven Cycle series is triumphant in more ways than one. The characterization and character development is impeccable. The infusion of Welsh mythology and paranormal elements lend the books an air of fantasy, yet they feel grounded in reality. And the lyrical, insightful prose sets the series apart from other paranormal romance books out there. All of this is either present or hinted at in the first chapter of The Raven Boys.

While the first chapter runs a bit long, it sets up a lot of information. This first chapter can be a bit expository, repeatedly taking us out of the scene to give background information, but I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. “It’s expository” comes up a lot in workshops, and writers are taught to trim exposition during revisions. But, ultimately, exposition is necessary. The focus, I think, should be on making those expository bits unique, cohesive (in relation to the primary scene being described), and enjoyable to the reader. Stiefvater accomplishes all of this in the first chapter of The Raven Boys. 

Another important thing the opening scene of The Raven Boys has going for it is that it’s memorable. The unique scenario–a teenage girl and a psychic standing by the ruins of an old church, documenting the names of the people who will die in the coming year–immediately stands out to readers. Years after my initial read, I still remember this scene vividly.

By the end of the first chapter, we already have a protagonist, hints of what will become the main conflict for her, and an established tone. By the end of the first chapter, we already have all the fixings of a story.

Red, White, And Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: When the ongoing feud between the First Son of the United States and the Prince of Wales comes to a public climax involving a royal wedding cake, the two are forced to feign friendship in an attempt to save face. This novel follows their journey from rivals to friends to secret lovers.

My favorite thing about the first chapter of RWARB is that it starts at the last possible moment. The first chapter follows Alex Claremont, the First Son of the United States, as he gets ready to confront his nemesis, The Prince of Wales, Henry. We’re quickly introduced to Helen Claremont’s White House and the people within it who surround Alex. We’re briefly introduced to Alex’s conflict with Henry, and we start to understand that it is more internal than external. And, finally, we are taken to Henry’s brother’s wedding: the moment Alex has been dreading. The first chapter ends when a drunk Alex trips and pulls Henry down with him into the massive wedding cake. Since the story takes off once Alex and Henry are forced to pretend they are friends as a way to do some damage control after the cake situation, the scene at the wedding is the inciting incident. The first plot point. McQuiston’s ability to get us there so promptly makes this a memorable beginning.

On a more microscopic level, the first scene in the first chapter is also very telling. It involves Alex finding a hidden carving on a wall of the White House that says “Rule #1: Don’t Get Caught.” This becomes a huge theme throughout the book as Alex and Henry carry out a relationship where secrecy is a must. This makes the first scene both intriguing (because who knows what kind of tiny secrets like this one are actually hidden in the White House?) and thematically important. 

There are so many things that make a beginning memorable, effective, and vivid. While I don’t claim to have the recipe for a perfect opening (that’s what the guidebooks are for!), I think (and hope) that taking a closer look at successful first chapter is one way to learn by absorption. At the very least, it was fun in the nerdiest way!

I hope, Dear Reader, that you might find this post useful too.

Yours, 

Miss Breathing

Copyright Note: I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I always do my best to properly cite my sources. However, if you feel I have improperly credited someone’s work, please message me privately and I will make the necessary changes. If the work cited in this post is yours, please know that my intention is never to regurgitate your ideas but to discuss how they have impacted me. If you feel I have misused your work, please message me privately and I will edit the post or take it down altogether. 

What If It’s A Novel?

“What if it’s a novel?” someone–I can’t remember who–said. There it was: the dreaded comment I had been anticipating from the moment I handed my story in for workshop. In the four years I had been in college, I’d taken countless writing workshops, some for prose, some for scripts, and always with predictable results. By the end of my Advanced Fiction Workshop, I had come to understand that the go-to critique–that thing you say to take charge of the conversation, seem smart, and poise yourself on a pedestal all at once–was, “maybe it’s a novel.”

I had gotten this critique countless times, and admittedly had given it out once or twice myself, yet I couldn’t ignore the sting I felt at hearing them about this particular story. I sat there at the corner of the long table and bit my tongue to keep from audibly scoffing as the conversation focused on all the things about my piece that “would work better if it wasn’t a short story.” I was irked because, once the word ‘novel’ was uttered, the workshop had devolved into a free-for-all where people threw around ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the draft at hand: “what if your main character wasn’t the focus of the story?” “what if, instead of present-day Boston, it’s set in 1950s Venezuela?” I was angry that they were stripping my story down to nothing. I was angry that they couldn’t stick to critiquing the work in front of them and had instead resorted to hypotheticals. And, most of all, I was angry because they were right. It would be better as a novel. 

This story came to me with a title already attached: “Carrot Cake.” The first stroke of inspiration came in the shape of (you guessed it!) a carrot cake. I was internally creating a world and characters and conflicts from the first time I saw the cake and thought to myself maybe there’s a story there. By the time I had a seventeen-page draft ready for workshop, I had been thinking about or working on “Carrot Cake” for well over a year. So, yeah, it sucked to hear people fixating on what it could be instead of what it was. This annoyance was heightened by the fact that I was graduating in a few weeks and I had spent more time studying media theory and scriptwriting than studying creative writing. In other words, I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel.

I love rules. I absolutely adore them. It’s why I kick ass at Uno. It’s why my idea of a perfect night involves Settlers of Catan. It’s also why I am so terrified of tackling a novel project. WHAT ARE THE RULES???? Ask some “experts,” and they’ll tell you there are too many rules to count. Others will say there are none. Most will hit you something along the lines of “I don’t know the recipe for good writing; I just know it when I see it.” As a self-proclaimed lover of rules, that vague shit just wasn’t going to cut it for me.

I stayed back after class on the day of my workshop and confided in my professor that I had considered turning “Carrot Cake” into a novel but was unsure how to go about it. I told her the prospect of writing a novel scared me. “You’re right,” she said. “ I don’t think you’re ready to write a novel.” I nodded, thanked her, then made some polite conversation before skulking off to the bathroom to talk shit about her to my mom. I took it like a champ. But, the minute I left that classroom, I was determined to write the novel.

Notwithstanding, I still had no fucking clue how to do it.

A few months later, I stood in the teeny Writing section of my local Barnes and Noble. I grabbed a copy of everything that claimed to help write a novel and carried my pile to a worn armchair by the second-floor windows. I spent all afternoon skimming everything from Stephen King’s “On Writing” to “Writing a Novel And Getting Published For Dummies.” I wrote extensive notes on the perceived pros and cons of more than a dozen guidebooks (I. Love. Rules.). By the time I was finished, I had a tension headache and numb buttcheeks, but I had narrowed it down to two books: “The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel” by Hallie Ephron (follow her on Twitter!) and “Writing Your Novel From Start To Finish” by Joseph Bates (follow him on Twitter!).

After bringing both books home, I realized that “The Everything Guide” is much more technical, and it focuses on the logistics of how to break down your idea into a novel (which is great because, as I have said probably too many times by now, I have no clue how to go about doing that). Joseph Bates’s book is more about the intellectual process of novel writing, though it does include technical step-by-steps. Reading it emulates the feeling of being in the middle of a really great lecture. In the absence of hard and fast rules, I decided to let Ephron and Bates guide me through this journey of writing my first novel.

As I delve into the first few chapters of both guides, I am driven to think about beginnings. When I say beginnings I don’t mean the opening scene of my novel; I mean the start of this journey. In “The Everything Guide,” Ephron talks about the tools one needs to write a novel. She says the best first step you can take is to gift yourself time and space. I’ve set up my desk in a corner of my room, and I’ve filled the drawers with chocolate (and Lactaids) to reward myself after a couple of productive hours. I light a candle, put on a record, and hang a makeshift DO NOT DISTURB sign on my bedroom door, and boom–I’m ready to start writing.

The next step of this journey–Ephron and Bates seem to concur–is turning an idea into a premise. I won’t say much about this because I’m superstitious and don’t like giving details about a work-in-progress, but this was a fairly easy step for me to take because “Carrot Cake” already exists as a story. But, as I began to distill Ephron and Bates’s advice on beginnings, I started to notice similarities between what they were writing and what I had been taught in my screenwriting classes. I ran to my shelf and pulled out my favorite scriptwriting guide, Syd Field’sScreenplay.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that starting a screenplay is not at all different from starting a novel; it all starts with turning an idea into a premise. This realization came as a relief, because I may not know how to write a novel yet, but I sure as hell know how to write a script. 

As I get ready to take the first steps of this journey, I feel a little more confident than I did following that less-than-awesome workshop experience (I’d loathe to call it a ‘bad’ experience, because there were some nice takeaways and the professor was mostly kind and always supportive). I feel like I have Ephron, Bates, and Field in my corner, and now it’s time to let them take the wheel.

I can’t wait to see where they lead me!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Copyright Note: I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I always do my best to properly cite my sources. However, if you feel I have improperly credited someone’s work, please message me privately and I will make the necessary changes. If the work cited in this post is yours, please know that my intention is never to regurgitate your ideas but to discuss how they have impacted me. If you feel I have misused your work, please message me privately and I will edit the post or take it down altogether.

I Miss Breathing

Dear Reader,

I am writing this from rock bottom. Well. Technically, I’m writing this on my MacBook Pro, from the comfort of an IKEA desk. So, safe to say my idea of rock bottom is fairly cushy.

The thing is, I’m unhappy. Plain and simple. I don’t have my shit together, and I never have. I just graduated from college with a degree in something I’m not even sure how to love anymore. I have no job and no real prospects. I just had to defer acceptance to my dream master’s program because I’m too sick to move to New York. I moved back into my old room in my mom’s house in a Florida town no one’s ever heard of, and I can’t stop reading my tarot cards about a guy I’m not likely to ever see again. I know things could be much, much worse, but damn if it doesn’t suck to be where I am right now. It’s a little hard to sound optimistic when everything is a muted shade of grey.

Earlier in the year, at that point in the semester where you still make an effort to keep up with assigned readings, I started reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” for a class. I’d been meaning to read it since the ninth grade (as if somehow my old English Honors teacher could telepathically sense I was reading classics and write me an encouraging note on Facebook Messenger about enriching my education), so I actually made an effort to read it. I’m big enough to admit I didn’t finish the novel. But I loved the 250ish pages that I did read. (I promise I’m not just saying that). I knew I really loved the book about two chapters in when Scout says,

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that reading that made me cry (blame my period or my antidepressants if you like—I do!). I imagine part of this is because I share Scout’s feelings for the written word. The way I love bound books and loose pages and typed words and ink stains is, for me, as natural and primal as breathing. But that’s not all it was; when I first read this line, I was struck with a strong sense of loss. For the first time in a long time, I could not remember what it felt like to love things so deeply. To put it plainly, I missed breathing.

Several emotional breakdowns later, here I am. Determined now to recover my love for living. On a mission to find my lost love of breathing. Hence the name Miss Breathing. It’s kind of catchy, no?

But what exactly is this blog about? Like all great stories, mine starts with a quest: I’m going to write a novel. It won’t be perfect, but that’s a feeling I’ll need to learn to sit with. The process will be messy and the road bumpy. I’m riddled with insecurities about this project, and, more than anything else, I am absolutely terrified.

As I find myself standing still at the starting line, I keep thinking about one of my favorite tarot cards. It’s card number seventeen of the Major Arcana: The Star. It’s a card of good fortune, signifying universal powers at work in your favor. The Star says you can do anything, be anything, if only you put in the work and believe in yourself. The drawback? Nothing you do seems good enough to put out into the world. So now you’re standing there, all this creative energy alive inside of you, and absolutely nothing to show for it.

I’ve lost count of how many unfinished stories, scripts, poems, and novels I have. I used to think that if they weren’t perfect, they weren’t worth it. But the truth is I’m not writing the next American classic at twenty-one. It’s just not happening. That doesn’t mean I don’t have stories to tell. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

This blog signifies a lot for me. It’s going to serve as a documentation of how I get my shit together. It’s the place where I’m going to vent, share, rejoice, and moan about the process of writing my first novel. It’s going to be a writing blog. It’s going to be a self-care blog. It’s going to be a mind-dump. It’s going to be completely imperfect, and I am learning how to be okay with that. I’m going to share this crazy, messy, ugly journey out of rock bottom with whoever wants to read along. I can’t promise much, but I can promise it will be interesting!

I hope you’ll tag along!

Yours,

Miss Breathing