Don’t Start at the Very Beginning

August 2, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Allison K Williams

When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.

Our readers don’t need this information.

There are four future memoirists in this picture

Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.

Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?

Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):

1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.

For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.

2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.

We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?

3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.

Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.

If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.

As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.

Allison K Williams is the Brevity Blog’s Social Media Editor. Struggling with your beginning? Join Allison and Creative Nonfiction Magazine for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings August 24th (yes, there’s a replay!) More info/register here.

How I Found My Fountain of Youth

April 29, 2021 § 34 Comments

By Eileen V. Finley

©Just Joy Photography 2013

Remember that feeling of anticipation that crept through our classroom windows every spring when we were kids? Remember how the warm, sweet air taunted us with restless longings for the beginning of summer vacation? Endless days of freedom stretched before us in a boundless field of possibility.

Youth is full of beginnings and recently I discovered the reverse is also true—beginnings are full of youth.

Scientists, doctors and self-help gurus seem to agree with me. For years now, I’ve been reading articles claiming the best way to maintain a youthful hold on life, well into old age, is to stop doing what we’ve been doing, move outside our comfort zone, and try something new. Learn to play an instrument, study a foreign language, master a new skill.

Could this simple advice really lead to the Fountain of Youth we all seek?

After retiring from an intellectually stimulating fifty-year career as a musician, educator and conductor, I chased this question. I looked back on the momentous beginnings of my youth and searched for their commonalities.

—I remember the day I entered my first classroom as a new teacher, aware of the pulse pounding in my ears, the slight tremor in my hands. I leapt with abandon, trusting the chute would open. I was 22 and on the brink of something wonderful.

—I remember boarding the plane for my first overseas trip, after spending months studying city maps, planning, researching, imagining the unknown, until I could think of nothing else.

—I remember the first time I stood on a stage facing the choir. I could feel the heat of the audience on the back of my neck, and the suspended breath of the singers before me. In that moment of silence, I signaled the downbeat and brought forth glorious sound. I trembled at the magnificence of it.

What did these significant beginnings have in common? In each:

—I was undertaking a task for the first time.

—I had a fleeting awareness of the risk, but a reasonable amount of confidence.

—My desire to succeed was greater than my fear of the risk.

The risk, with all its anticipation, exhilaration and awe, arose from a place of beginning, of newness, of wonder, not from the bed of safety and security I had spent a lifetime building.

To stand poised on the edge of the unknown is the essence of youth.

At 72, in an effort to rekindle those feelings, I began again, this time as a writer.

For years my music colleagues had been asking me to write a book. Some wanted a handbook for choral directors. Others wanted a dissertation on classroom management, student motivation, curriculum design, or even a “how to” book for organizing a community children’s choir. My muse wanted none of this. For, me, it would have to be a memoir.

With each page of my first draft, I wallowed in a whirlwind of the unknown, the thrill of a new adventure, the explosion of my creativity. Once again, I leapt with abandon.

It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing….

― Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

I wrote every day, willingly submitting to the mesmerizing process as its magic dispelled all sense of time. When I was forced away from my desk by life’s other responsibilities, my mind danced with lyrical phrases, poetic metaphors, and story meanderings as I cooked or exercised or laundered sheets.

During that first year, I completed a memoir, explored various forms of poetry, toyed with writing prompts and developed my voice through personal essays. I took classes online and in person, attended writers’ conferences and workshops led by well-respected authors. I read, and read, and read. The insatiable hunger to learn erupted from some place young and fertile within. I was 22 again.

Tackling a creative passion, a challenging skill or an unexplored talent has the power to increase your energy level, enrich your quality of life, and allow you to see yourself in a new light, but these rewards don’t come easily. You need motivation and desire to sustain you when the going gets tough.

To find your motivation, recall some of the beginnings you embarked upon in your youth—the first day of freshman year, the first day on a new job, the day you decided to make that career or life choice shift—then revisit the full range of visceral sensations you experienced in these moments.

To arouse your desire, make a list of all the things you haven’t done but would love to try—pole dancing or magic, singing or sailing, painting, acting, knitting. We each have a limitless well of untapped talents, skills and interests waiting to be unleashed.

Then step off the ledge.

Do It! You are ready. Don’t hesitate. You are capable. Don’t make excuses. You are at the perfect age to begin again.

And it just might lead you to your own personal Fountain of Youth.

_________________

Eileen Finley founded the Pennsylvania Youth Chorale in 1977 and served as its CEO and artistic director for 40 years. Now retired from a music, conducting, and teaching career, she is determined to become a writer. Ms. Finley has attended numerous writers’ conferences and taken several writing courses and workshops with notable author-teachers. She is actively submitting to a variety of literary publications and contests. This is her first published piece! Visit Eileen at http://eileenvfinley.com/

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