Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where to Begin?

At a RACWI (Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators) meeting in June 2008, Sibby Falk, challenged us with a writing exercise based on the brilliant 2005 The Rules of Engagement talk by Editor Cheryl Klein. I was familiar with the talk, which covered, among many things, the importance of a gripping story beginning. Ms. Klein discussed effective beginnings that fall into the following categories: character, description, action, mystery, situation and insight. Based on the list, Sibby created six writing stations. RACWI members were instructed to rotate through as many stations as possible. At each station, we were given the task of writing a story beginning based on that station’s focus. At each station, we were also given a measly five minutes to complete the task.

Writing the beginning of a story is challenging under the best of circumstances, but doing so within a five minute deadline seemed impossible and prompted a pained groan from many of the RACWI members, myself included.  

My first station was Action.

With the clock running, I put the tip of Mickey Mouse pen to paper and wrote nothing. Mickey stayed frozen in that position for a whole two minute as the pens of my fellow writers scribbled away furiously. For an action station, Mickey and I were not very active.
What to write? What to write? The question repeated in my head. I came up blank and began to panic as the writer next to me flipped over her paper to continue writing her action beginning. I felt like I was drowning. Drowning! That’s a gripping action! With the final minute ticking down, I wrote one line.

Johnny’s lungs began to burn, aching to inhale, but hearing the muffled voices above, he knew that he must not break the surface of the water, yet.

As I finished punctuating my action line, the timer sounded. Happy that I’d been able to write something, I headed to the next station: Mystery. I tried to think of a fresh topic, but kept returning to Johnny. Why he was scared to surface from the water? Intrigued, I wrote a mystery beginning with the same character and situation.

20 seconds? 40 seconds? 60 seconds? How long could Johnny hold his breath? Last summer at swim camp, he had held it for 62 seconds before breaking thorough the chlorinated water gasping for air, but at that time, he hadn’t been scared. Johnny shut his eyes in silent prayer that here under the murky waters of Charleston Lake, he could hold it for longer.

With my action and mystery beginnings in hand, I headed to the Character station and didn’t even wait for the 5-minute timer to be set before starting. I still didn’t know why Johnny was hiding under water, but I had learned more about him from the mystery station. I knew where he was and what was at stake if he chose to stay under the water. What I still didn’t know was what was at stake if he did surface. Who was this kid and what motivated his actions?
Johnny carried the look of a beaten dog, which was irresistible to the Brigadoon Gang. He was short, skinny and cowered when approached. But as he clung to the sunken log in Charleston Lake, waiting for the mocking voices to fade, his mind hatched a plan for revenge.

Our meeting concluded with a sharing of our beginning lines, and although I never made it to all 6 stations, I did leave with three important things:

1.      An appreciation for writing exercises to keep writing fresh

2.      An understanding of the power of a focused beginning

3.      And the beginning of my first YA manuscript, IN THE CREASE

Months of writing and years of revising altered the beginning of IN THE CREASE, but hints of all three beginnings can be still be found in the final draft.  

Fitzy's lungs burned, aching to inhale, but hearing the muffled voice above, he swam deeper.  He groped along the river bottom for something he could use as an anchor.  His fingers burrowed into a submerged log.  It crumbled in his grasp, and he floated to the surface.

In the end, I chose to go with an Action beginning as it seemed fitting for a story dealing with the fast-paced sport of lacrosse.
Every new story I begin with Klein’s exercise in mind. I write different types of beginning lines until I find the beginning that best fits the story I intend to tell. For FINDING OBENO I chose a Character beginning. For SIGH, I went with Mystery.

What type of beginning introduces the reader to your story?
When deciding where to begin, what approach do you take?


No comments:

Post a Comment