What I want to do is write a perfect opening when I start a new project. A great powerhouse opening that reels you in, or alternately, a poetic entrance that captures your interest. Opening scenes that get stuck in your memory.
More often than not, however, what I get instead is rambling and flailing crap. And each time, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to write a terrible opening. Or no opening at all.
In My Blue World, I think, is the only novel I’ve written where the original opening is the one you see in the end result, but that’s because I knew exactly how to open up that story as soon as I started it. I knew that Zuzannah had to enter the world of the Meeks sisters very unconventionally, literally ripping the fabric of space and time in front of their eyes. It’s been revised of course, but for the most part it remained very close to the original attempt.
Meet the Lidwells, on the other hand, started out as a series of Q&A sessions between the band and the unnamed interviewer, whom I later completely edited out, leaving their voice only as section headers and side notes. A Division of Souls had three completely different and unrelated opening attempts before I returned to the original idea of Nehalé’s awakening ritual. The other two Bridgetown books also started off slightly differently. And nearly all of my trunked stories had alternate openings.
With my two latest projects, I’ve had to remind myself, again, that the only way I can really start these novels is to just WRITE THE DAMN THINGS and not worry too much about how the first chapter sounds. I’m sure I’ll be rewriting or at least revising them in the future, once I have a stronger grasp on what they’re about and what the story needs.
Which is why I call it First Chapter Flailing. I’m still trying to discover all the important parts of the story. What kind of tone do I want to set for the rest of the novel? Who is involved in the first scene, and why? What kind of setting am I looking at? How is this going to tie in with the novel as a whole? The problem is not that I don’t know how to write it, it’s that I’m trying to stick the landing the first time out, and I almost always fail in the process. I either start it too early or too late in the story’s timeline. And then I get frustrated and want to start over. I don’t mind wasting a bit of time trying to write a good story, but I hate wasting words and scenes I won’t use. I know it sounds weird, but it happens.
So how to combat this? Well, like I said: just write the damn thing. Don’t be perfect about it. Just have a vague idea of where this particular first scene is going and what I want it to achieve, and run with it. Have a mental short list of points I want to hit right away. Don’t worry about giant infodumps. And by all means, go ahead and give those characters a somewhat mundane conversation, because that’s the perfect place to drop hints on what will come later on.
There are a lot of moving parts in a novel, especially at the beginning, where it sets everything else in motion. Of course the first draft is going to be messy as hell. It’s always going to be crap. Maybe you’ll luck out and nail it first try, but more often than not you’ll be doing a lot of revision and rewriting in a month or two once you have a much better handle on the story.
And that’s okay! It’s all part of the job of writing. You can always forgive yourself afterwards for all that First Chapter Flailing.