Trusting the Writer: Strong Beginnings with Andrew Kaufman
Starting with the end and ending with the beginning. Who's to say which is which?
In light of our collaboration with Toronto's festival of the mind, Luminato, we have reached out to Canadian writers to find out how they begin their work! Today's author is Andrew Kaufman, who spoke to us about his novel Born Weird. Click here to read the first few pages!
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What came first for you—the story or the characters?
For me it always starts with an idea. What if all my friends really were superheroes? What if an overworked Mom started to shrink? For Born Weird it was "What if family inheritance manifested in a magical power?" Everything else spins out of that.
The book starts out at a football game, with four of the Weird siblings gathered to watch their brother Kyle play football. It’s a pretty tense game with a lot on the line, and then it ends with a bit of a shock. What made you decide to start here?
That was actually the very last scene I wrote. The book was supposed to just be about Angie. But while I was writing Born Weird the siblings became a much larger part of the story than I’d anticipated. And because you don’t meet some of them until pretty far into the story, they needed an introduction early on.
The story is told in the third person and is mainly the story of one of the siblings, Angie. What made you decide to use this character to tell your story?
The first draft of the book was in Angie’s first person, but I couldn't make it work so I went to third person, but stayed close to her. Angie’s blursing (curse+blessing) from her Grandmother is the power to always forgive, which on one hand makes her a bit of a door-mat but on the other ensures that she’s always there for the important moments. She doesn't hold grudges or snub people, she literally can’t, so her perspective serves as a hub because she’s always included, trusted, at the center of things.
How important is the beginning of a story to you?
The first twenty pages are essential to me. They set up everything that follows. But even more importantly, I really feel that if a potential reader isn't hooked by the end of the first chapter, I've done something wrong. To assume anything different is to take a reader for granted.
How about as a reader?
I put as many books down as I start. Sometimes it’s just because my tastes don’t mesh with what a writer has written—I’ve failed to finish some pretty classic novels just because either started them at the wrong time in my life, or they’re just not the kind of story that resonates with me. On the other hand, there are certainly books where I feel like the writer really wasn't valuing my time
What are the key elements to a strong beginning?
I think it’s about convincing the reader that you can be trusted as a story-teller, to motivate them into committing to the rest of it. The first twenty pages should have a ‘tip of the ice berg’ feel—that the characters, plot and themes are only going to get bigger and deeper from here on in.
Are their any “don’ts” when it comes to beginnings?
Don’t be afraid to ignore anything that doesn't feel right with what you do well.
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)?
There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I've always found it enormously helpful: "Start as close to the end as possible."
Andrew Kaufman will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Photo credit: Lee Towndrow