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Strong Beginnings

Start Building the Raft: Strong Beginnings with Grace O'Connell

It doesn't seem to matter whether you are writing an essay, a letter, a poem or a book (or even this post), beginnings seem to be the hardest part. Sometimes you have to dive in, start with what you know, and often the beginning is, surprisingly, the end.


In light of our collaboration with Toronto's festival of the mind, Luminato, we are reaching out to Canadian writers to find out how they begin their work.


Our first author is Grace O'Connell speaking about the opening to her new book Magnified World. Click here to read the first few pages!

What came first for you - the story or the characters?
The characters came first, and waited patiently for me to figure out the story. They wrinkled their noses at me while I put them through a lot of terrible early drafts, but they stayed with me.

The main character is a young woman who begins to have frequent blackouts after the death of her mother. You open the book with the first of these blackouts. What made you decide to start here?
I wrote a lot of different openings, and that scene was originally much later in the manuscript. As I edited, I realized  "Oh this is where the book actually starts" and just cut everything that came before.

I think it's common to write your way into a book or story. There are pages that are written because the writer needs them in order to get in, not because the reader needs them. Then when you're editing, you just toss all that unnecessary blah-blah-ing because you were really just talking to yourself.

The first few pages ask some really big questions. What were you hoping to achieve with this opening?
It's an old writing cliché that your characters have to want something. A cream soda, their child back, to get laid—it can be anything. And it's a cliché that is usually true; their desire will move the narrative. Maggie's desire is for knowledge, for answers, and it's such a big, almost crippling, desire that she couldn't appear without the desire appearing simultaneously. And the hope of course is that the reader then wants those things too.

Was there ever a time where this wasn't the beginning? If so, where had you initially started the action?
Oh yes. A lot of the previous openings I wrote were too 'thinky-feely', as I said to my editor. They jumped into theme before character and I think that can be a ticket to snooze town. It's usually better to have theme emerge from character rather than the other way around—going straight to theme can seem wanky (can I say that on CBC?). Although I can definitely think of some great books that jumped right into theme and made it work. But for this book, I wanted to start in scene, with Maggie, with movement and event.

The story is narrated from Maggie’s point of view. What made you decide to use her voice? 
Since Maggie is having trouble separating reality from non-reality, it really had to be in her voice. It's a look at madness from the inside out, through Maggie, and from the outside in, through her observations of her mother. I wanted to have both viewpoints. Plus I love writing in first person. I find it freeing; there's less of me in it, which may seem counter-intuitive, but makes me feel protected.

How important is the beginning of a story to you, as a writer?  
It's really important, especially if I'm writing chronologically. Because then the opening needs to do the same thing for me that I want it to do for a reader.

How about as a reader? 
A book that doesn't start with a bang is not a bad book. I remember both Wuthering Heights and Lady Oracle failed to grab me in their openings, and I put them down. But I picked them up again and they are both fantastic books. Lady Oracle in particular is a favourite, and I remember not being grabbed by the first chapter or so at all. Once I got through that though, I loved it. Give the books with quiet openings a chance!

That being said, I love a fantastic first line/paragraph/scene. A first page is its own minute art form.

Do you have a favourite opening scene for a novel? Or is there a particular novel that surprised you with its opening. If so, which one?
Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? has a great opening: "Royal beating. That was Flo's promise." You're immediately asking questions (who is getting a beating? Why? What was done to deserve a beating? Will this person be okay?). And it's mechanically strong: these short, declarative sentences and the uncertainty and vernacular touch of the phrase "royal beating".

I like Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage as well: "Everyone knows it wasn't like that". Again, questions and interest right away, and a strong sentence.

One of my all-time favourites though has to be Atwood's Cat's Eye. Her narrator talks about the nature of time, but she does it in this visual, fascinating way. It is three short paragraphs and it could be a standalone micro-fiction. It's ominous and gorgeous and uneasy. It sets the book up perfectly.

What are the key elements to a strong beginning?
Physicality or something sensory can help anchor an opening. An unusual sentence length or structure. Humour. Violence. A stunning observation. Gorgeous prose. Great dialogue. There are a million versions of the strong beginning—if it makes the reader ask a question (out of curiosity, not confusion), that's usually a good thing. Clarity is incredibly important.

Are there any “don’ts” when it comes to beginnings? 
Anything common or cliché is what will really kill an opening. This is your chance to show that this book is itself and nothing else—that it's a story that has never been told exactly like this before. Convoluted wording is deathly; a reader needs to enter seamlessly.

And that thinky-feely stuff can be tricky. Don't open with a character musing to him or herself about something theoretical or emotional unless they are musing about the most bloody interesting thing you've ever imagined. Use words or sensory details that will anchor the reader.

What advice do you have for someone out there struggling to find where to begin their work (whether they are starting with a blank page or 400 pages of text)?
Start anywhere. Write the random scene you think is going to happen halfway through the book but that is the only thing you can think of right now and go from there. Your beginning probably won't be your beginning in the final draft anyway. Just start building the raft or you'll never get off the island.  

Grace O'Connell will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Photo credit: Derek Wuenschirs

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