In Defense of Bad Book Beginnings

  • Jan 24, 2024
  • 5 minute read

We all know the trope: Jessica woke up to her alarm clock. She stood in front of her full-length mirror in her bedroom and noted her icy blue eyes. Her luxurious chestnut hair glistened in the morning light.

And on and on and on. It’s a faux pas at this point to start your story with the character looking in the mirror; some editors even say that it’s a red flag for a beginning writer.

But what if you are a beginning writer? What if, in your mind, the story really does begin when your character sits up in bed and takes a look around?

Erin here, and I’m here with three reasons I think you should write your book with the worst, most cliché beginning ever.

It lowers the bar of entry

It can be really overwhelming to sit down to write your first book! Not only are you trying to work with a story that’s never been told (and those can be slippery things), you’re also trying to learn a new skill. Why wouldn’t you make it as easy for yourself as possible?

So start with It was a dark and stormy night… You can always edit it later. Who cares if it’s cliche while it’s in its infancy? Weren’t we all a little cliche as babies?

It’s okay for you to lean on cliches as you’re getting the hang of this writing thing. Plus, if you’re stuck because you don’t know where to start, using a cliche beginning lets you jump right over that issue.

It’s a neurological hack

Using an introduction that feels “bookish” automatically puts your brain into a story state. You might not have the “writing story” part of your brain fully functional yet – and trust me, you’ll meet NYT best-sellers who feel like theirs isn’t working just right, either – but it’s okay. That takes time!

If you can trick your brain into thinking, “Oh, I’m writing now!” then it’s going to be a lot easier for you to write the next line and the next line and the next scene and the next chapter.

It reminds you to edit

Learning to write is a difficult skill, especially if you’re an avid reader! You pretty immediately run into something that Ira Glass calls the taste-and-talent gap: 

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginner … For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So if you start with something that you know isn’t “right,” you’ve already told your brain that, at some point, you intend to come back and make those repairs. This can be really soothing for a brain that is a perfectionist or for the writer whose inner critic just won’t stop as they draft.

Because, alas, perfect first drafts simply do not exist.

I have wasted so much of my writing life trying to get to the point where I could write a perfect first draft. Sometimes I write perfect scenes! Sometimes the dialogue comes out just pristine. But other times, I end up scrapping entire plotlines, cutting characters, and redoing basically the entire story.

Here’s the rub: neither of those things is better than the other.

The second rub: when I reread my fiction, I cannot tell the difference.

The big issue for me is that I got tangled up in the first draft hoping that I’d somehow write a perfect thing this time. Writing a “bad” beginning on purpose reminds you that this is just a draft; you’re filling a sandbox. You’re prepping for a revision.

So write that bad intro! Start with that dark and stormy night, that character sitting up in bed, the oddly clumsy teenage girl who has two strange supernatural boys fighting over her.

The most important thing you can do to become a better writer is to write! Use whatever hacks you need to in order to trick your brain into being more comfortable with the writing, and you’ll get better and better as you go.

Eventually, you might even find yourself writing first chapters with a lot more ease. Don’t stress about where you start: just start. I promise it’ll all come out in the revision-wash. And hey, if you need help, I happened to know several really excellent developmental editors

To hear a more in-depth conversation about this, listen to our podcast episode on The Rough Stuff.

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