How to Write Your Beginning

Back in 2005, I had to make a really tough decision.

I decided to leave my first career, journalism. The desire to leave overwhelmed me. This was a profession for which I’d studied and slaved for hours just to get a low-paying job in a small-town newspaper. It was my dream!

Yet, I could hardly stand to go to work. I bought a gym membership just to have somewhere to go in the morning that wasn’t my desk. I sat in the sauna and thought about how late I would be and tried hard to care.

Finally, I had to face the facts - journalism wasn’t for me. Yes, I loved writing, but that didn’t mean I had to love all forms of writing. News writing is a specific skill and I sincerely respect everyone who does it for a living. The thankless, grueling work wore me down to a nub and I started counting down the minutes after I put in my two-week notice.

I am not in this picture

After the heartbreak of failing at my first career, I decided to take on another one - international education. I signed up for the Peace Corps and got placed in Madagascar. an island nation that ranked fifth amongst the poorest nations on earth.

It was something.

I arrived and then paused to pick my jaw up off the ground. This place wasn’t poor - it was decimated. People swarmed the streets of Antananarivo, the nation’s capital. Everyone squeezed through everyone else - the cars, the busses packed with even more people, the massive trucks hauling food donations from other countries. It never ended.

I got acclimated and trained as an English teacher for the next few months. As I did, I felt this little spark inside me - I got a new beginning! This was something I never thought I’d do, yet there I was, shivering in the mountains of Madagascar and living with a host family with whom I could hardly communicate.

Yes, it was difficult, but it was a clear moment in my life, a time when something began.

Beginnings need a why

Stories need more than a time and date as a start. You have to ask yourself, Why now? Why is this moment in my protagonist’s life so important?

If like me, your protagonist had a major career change, that can be a good spot to start a story. In the book I’m editing, Twin Gates, the story starts when Jaime, the main character, asks his best friend Eduardo to help him solve the mystery behind a strange photo.

I recently read Nowhere Girl by Cheryl Diamond, a memoir about one family’s life on the run. In her book, she starts with a day from her childhood when her family visited a temple in India to go and pray. The moment introduces you to her family’s lifestyle, (criminal vegetarians), and lets you see why she idolizes her father so much despite his insanity. The story is long and detailed, so she starts at the beginning to get the reader invested in her family’s safety and to show their chaotic lifestyle in a way that doesn’t feel confusing.

Your turn

Take a moment to really consider the question: Why now?

If you can’t answer it, think about what else is happening in your protagonist’s life. What’s causing friction or a new course of action? Write those notes down in your outline and see if that helps clarify the why.

Remember, a good beginning gets your reader excited about your story, so spend quality time on your start. If you feel bored by the beginning, mark this section of your outline as a reminder to come back to it. Whatever you do, do NOT write a beginning you don’t like. You’ll get venomous reviews.

Here’s mine

In issues one and two I discussed my idea for a mother who fears her son, Sammy, because she’s certain he’s on track to be a serial killer. So, how will I start this story?

My story starts when Sammy is about eleven months old. He’s taking his first steps. Tess, his mother, shrieks in delight - her baby boy is walking! He toddles over to her, then something catches his eye. Before Tess realizes what he’s looking at, he’s halfway through the kitchen, reaching for the massive chef’s knife on the edge of the counter…

I want this story to begin with a moment of terror and comedy. It also makes my character Tess wonder - was Sammy simply drawn to the glint of sunlight hitting the knife handle, or is something more happening here? My book will also end with a question, so it feels appropriate to start with Tess’ first moment of uncertainty.

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