A question as promised.
I read with interest the story of your 'nine weeks in hell'. Could you share some insight on what you learned during that time about how to get a book's beginning 'right'? Do you have a checklist or similar that you work through to make sure you have certain elements present? Ways to hook in a reader and keep them reading? The reason I ask is that I do this sort of thing pretty much by instinct (or trial and error) and wonder if there's a more reliable way?
Hi, Adina ~
Getting your story beginning right is essential. Nothing--and I mean nothing--in your novel will work from that point on, if you don't nail your inciting incident within the first five pages.
Now, some of you are asking, "What the hell is an inciting incident and why is it so freakin' important?"
Well... I'm here to tell you.
Novels are about trouble. Big trouble. If your novel was a football game, your inciting incident would be the initial kick off. The situation that starts it all. Everything that follows in your book will radiate from this one point. It sets the tone for the entire story. It doesn't have to be huge--no need for fiery car crashes or murder (although, if that's where your novel is going, I say go for it...), just the exact moment in time where your protagonist realizes that their life has been altered in such a way that nothing will be right again until the situation (your inciting incident) is rectified.
Today's reader wants action. When I say action, I don't necessarily mean death and destruction. Action, meaning purpose. Forward movement toward a resolution to the trouble that started your protagonist on their journey--whatever that might be. They want action. Now. Not ten pages from now, and certainly not a few chapters in. The sooner you get your inciting incident on the page, the sooner you'll hook your reader. And the sooner you hook your reader, the more quickly they become involved in your novel. And the more quickly the become involved in your novel, the... well, you get the idea.
So, nailing you your inciting incident is critical to the success of your novel. That's just the way it is.
I have to tell you that I didn't come up with brilliant concept on my own. Nope--it belongs to Les Edgerton. If you'd like to know more, I suggest you pick up a copy of his craft book:
Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
It's available on Amazon.com. If you're struggling with your novel beginnings, this is exactly what you need.
To answer the second part of your question...
In the beginning, I worked much like you do--by feel and instinct. Which is probably how I ended up with a 750 page thriller that totally lacked structure. I knew I needed to streamline my novel and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, because quite frankly, I had no idea what I was doing.
When I decided to take my first writing class (with the ever brilliant, Les Edgerton), writing an outline was the first requirement, and I did so under protest. I fought the idea of an outline because I felt like it would stifle my creativity… boy, was I wrong.
In fact, writing an outline did the exact opposite. Instead of stifling my creativity, it reined it in and focused it in a way I had never experienced before. I was able to look at my outline and see where I was going, which make it so much easier for me to figure out how to get there.
An outline doesn’t have to be some long, intricate, scene by scene affair—in fact it shouldn’t be. 20-50 words is all it takes, hitting all your major plot points. Here’s an example of my outline for my novel, The First:
INCITING INCIDENT: Sabrina is confronted with her past as the first and only surviving victim of a serial killer.
1) Sabrina meets Michael, the brother of the killer’s latest victim.
2) Sabrina agrees to return to her hometown with Michael to find killer.
3) Sabrina returns home to search for the killer.
4) Sabrina finds the killer.
RESOLUTION: Sabrina accepts her past and re-builds her family.
Developing my outline beforehand enables me to really focus on writing a scene that truly captures the inciting incident , because I already know what it is. Every time I got lost, or felt myself drift, I’d look at my outline . Once I got through inciting incident hell (yup--that's really what it's called), it kept me on track, making the rest of the re-write a breeze...
I hope this answers your question, Adina!
Remember--If you've got a plot problem or question, send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org