Where to Start?

How do you decide where to start your novel?

We’ve heard the “no-no’s:” NO to starting with your character waking up in bed (unless that character is Katniss Everdeen). NO to your MC looking in the mirror and cataloguing her features (with an attendant backstory to each one . . .”My eyes, brown like mud. Reminds me of the mud Daddy made when he spat his chewing tobacco and ground it into the dirt. Then he plucked the daisy from my hand–I held it out to him, so hopeful–and ground that under his heel, too. I never keep daisies in the house.) NO to first day of school stuff. For heavens sake, NO lengthy descriptions of the view.

I’ve got to admit: in past manuscripts, I’ve been guilty of at least two of the above infractions.

Here’s a handy tip I learned at a writer’s conference, which has helped me immensely in figuring out where to plunge into a book: start at the most interesting moment of your MC’s life.

Look at your manuscript. Is your MC at the precipice of a life-altering event or choice? Is he on the brink of an action which, once taken, will change the course of his life? If not, you should probably start somewhere else. 

Here’s how I put that rule into practice with my latest manuscript:

“The green dye sits in the bowl. Shiny, like a newly-discovered jewel. I squirt out  more from the bottle and mix it with the gorgeous blob that will soon be in my hair.”

I considered–and scrapped–several different openings by using the “most interesting moment” principle. My MC, Liza, is a former child star–perhaps I should start the book at a big audition?

No good: Liza is an old-hand at auditions. No matter how big the role, any audition Liza goes on will probably not be the most interesting moment of her life.

Liza has just undergone a major move from L.A. to Georgia. What about starting there–the eve of her departure?

I rejected this as well; this opening didn’t have the urgency I wanted. Plus, it would have required me to majorly front-load on backstory (big time no-no) and delve deeply into the lives of characters other than my MC.

In the end (or in the most recent revision), I went with Liza on the brink of changing her appearance in a major way. I like that she’s dying her hair an unexpected color. I like that SHE is the agent of change. Liza, an identical twin who is constantly being overpowered by her more camera-ready sis, has stolen a few quiet moments in her bathroom. I liked the privacy of the setting, the immediacy of the moment right before she slathers on the hair dye.

Of course, this could all be scrapped if, in my next revision, I happen on a more interesting moment. But from here on out, the MIM principle will be my guide.

What do you think? Is this something you consider when drafting? Got a great opening scene? I’d love to hear from you!

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