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Weekend Writer: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier – Chapter One: In the Beginning Was the Word – The Anatomy of a First Page

Hey all, Sam here.

Wow, okay. Back again on another lovely Friday. I hope you are all doing great, and I hope you have cool plans for the weekend. I’m hoping to do some writing…or at the very least plotting and world-building. Anyway, well here we are at another Weekend Writer post, and this is the first installment covering The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, which has 8 chapters. The current plan is to only cover one chapter with each post, so that way we can absorb the information and talk about it, and not overwhelm ourselves with too much information at one time.

As this is the restart of Weekend Writer, it feels right that here at the beginning I’m focusing on a book all about beginnings: from ideas to first pages to first scenes to making your beginning shine.

All right. I don’t want to take too much time before getting into this post…because if my past book deep dives are any indication, this could potentially become a lengthy post. Let’s get into it.

Give your story its best start!

The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fictional world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing–one that could shut as quickly as it opens.

In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine the best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.

With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue and conflict, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages–and convincing them to stick around for the ride.

“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” —K.M. Weiland

Foreword by William Martin and Introduction

The foreword is a four page read that honestly gets us in the mindset of thinking about beginnings, and the importance of attracting attention in the first sentences, the first paragraphs, the first pages. Martin begins be establishing that from the time a reader (whether an editor, an agent, or a reader in a library or bookstore), you the writer only have a short period of time to grab their interest.

A reader will see the book, they’ll read the title and look at the cover, they’ll turn it over and start reading the back cover copy (or flip into the inside flap for most hardcovers), and they might even open it up and start reading the first page. With each of these steps they are processing what they are taking in and trying to make the decision if they want to keep reading or not, if this sounds interesting enough to keep going. So you might only have six seconds or sixty seconds to grab their attention.

And look, as a reader and a writer, I understand that this can be absolutely true. There are some fickle readers out there, and understandably agents and editors are going to be quite particular and discerning. They have to be. It’s their job. Me…well I’m a pretty easy sell on most books, particularly fantasy books. If it sounds remotely interesting then I at least add it to my Goodreads, but most of the time it ends up in my to-buy stack. (After that it could end up sitting on my bookshelves for a while. It really depends on my reading mood).

When I’m deciding on whether or not to get a book, I look at the title, the author, the cover, any blurbs on the covers, and then read the book summary on the back cover or dust jacket flap. Only if I’m on the fence do I open it up to read the first page, but that doesn’t happen all too often.

So yeah, I can see how important a first impression can be.

Martin then gets more specific, telling us–the readers of this book–how we can make the beginnings of our own writings good…and he says to read this book, to listen to what Munier has to say. He says that her experience as a writer, an editor, and an agent have taught her important truths that we all need to know. One of those is that Munier can’t teach you creativity: you either have it or you don’t. The second truth is that no one can teach talent.

But the third and most important truth, according to Martin, is the one that stood out to me:

You probably have a lot more talent than you think. If you are willing to sit at a desk, deny the distractions, and write until you’re numb, you have one of the main components of talent, which is the discipline to draw it out of yourself. And when you tell a story, you are responding to one of the deepest impulses of the species. Human beings have been making sense of the world through storytelling since we could first make sense of anything. So the instinct’s in you, too.

William Martin in the Foreward of “The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell” by Paula Munier, pg 3

Then comes the Introduction, which opens with a supposed publishing proverb: “The first page sells the book; the last page sells the next book.”

Again, the introduction reinforces the importance of beginnings, and that crafting a compelling opening isn’t easy. But the introduction also tells us reader/writers that this book will help us learn how to craft an impressive opening that will impress those agents and captivate readers. This book was apparently inspired by the popular First Ten Pages Boot Camp at Writer’s Digest University. The introduction also touts this as a one of a kind primer about the secrets of beginnings that sell.

I don’t know that I agree that it is one of a kind. This isn’t the only book on beginnings I’ve seen or read out there.

But I’m interested to see what this book could possibly teach me, to teach us. So I guess we should press on to the first chapter.

Chapter One: In the Beginning was the Word – The Anatomy of a First Page

Munier begins with speaking on how humans are storytellers, how that is part of what makes us human, how since the dawn of time we have gathered around campfires and such to tell or listen to stories, stories to entertain, stories to educate. A well told story lives on and on, and when we answer the call to tell a story, we take on the “sacred mantle of storyteller” ourselves.

And that is why we need to hone our craft and to start our storytelling well, so that we can tell stories that will live on and on too.

Munier then goes on about all the aspects of story that writers need to juggle, from tone and voice to premise and setting to dialogue and conflict and tension…it’s a lot. So Munier tells us the story of Margaret, who she was once in a writer’s group with, and Margaret was a solid storyteller but the opening of her story didn’t work, and Margaret knew it, despite having rewritten it numerous times.

So Munier spent time with her after the group session was over and they talked about the story, and Munier suggested that when in doubt you need to look at the masters. Find writers and books in the same genre and take a look at their beginnings.

No matter what your genre, the quickest way to understand what constitutes a fierce beginning is to read the first words of several best-selling works.

pg 9

From here Munier includes openings for several different stories in a variety of genres. We get to read these first couple sentences and can see how the stories give us a sense of what is going on, who is involved, why we should care, and what kind of story it is. You can tell a sci-fi is on another planet, you can sense the difference of a fantasy tale.

Then Munier gives us an exercise. It’s on page 13 if you have your own copy of the book. It asks you to consider your own strengths and how to use them as an advantage in your story’s opening. This exercise then tells you to exchange first pages with a writer friend if you’re unsure…and also says if you don’t have writer friends it is time to make some. You and your writer friend can exchange pages, examine your openings, and discuss how to better highlight your strengths.

So hey…anyone need more writer friends…because I’m game to have some more. We can create a chat group somewhere (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Discord, whatever) and talk whenever we need motivation or encouragement or if we’re stuck on something.

Munier then goes to say that before readers settle into a story, there’s a few things they need to know, and then lists those things. I’ll include the list here, and then she breaks down each one of these points further.

  • What kind of story is this?
  • What is the story really about?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • Which character should they care about most?
  • Where and when does the story take place?
  • How should they feel about what’s happening?
  • Why should they care what happens next?

What kind of story is this? What stood out to me most with this one is that your first words need to reinforce the genre identity set by the title or else you’ll lose the reader.

Interesting. Because see, some titles feel a little genre unspecific at first. So honestly, for me, it is the title in addition to the cover that really gives me a sense of what kind of story I’m getting into. Like okay, sure, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries (by Heather Fawcett) is pretty clearly a fantasy tale. Or Delilah and Reggie’s Year of Falling definitely feels like a romance, probably a contemporary one. But what about Gideon the Ninth (by Tamsyn Muir)? If you didn’t have a publisher attached, if you didn’t see a cover or read the book summary, what genre is evoked from the title? Because honestly I know that historically speaking some nobles stated their name in such a way, like Henry the Eighth. So is the book historical, maybe historical fantasy? Now once paired with the cover and the summary, it is very obviously from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.

So I don’t think title alone is necessarily a perfectly clear indicator.

Next Munier asks what the story is really about, and says odds are good when someone asks this question, we can answer it in fifty words or less.

Now this I believe can be a make-it-or-break-it moment for your story. I’ve had times where I struggle to give a quick summary for my own stories, and that tells me that I still need to work on it. I think a quick pitch can be very useful. The quick pitch that most people give for Gideon the Ninth is “lesbian necromancers in space.” Four Words. That’s it.

But, I’d also say that you might have a little more wiggle room than fifty words. I’ve sold a good number of copies of Colorworld (by Rachel E Kelly) with a one minute spoken pitch at conventions. That can be a tough place to sell books. There is so much to look at that people are often in a hurry. You have to be able to talk up your product fast or else you’ll lose the potential of a sale.

Munier then goes back to some of the openings she had shared a couple pages earlier and gives us quick pitches for each of those, although she very much establishes that Game of Thrones (by George R.R. Martin) is an exception to a number of rules for beginnings and says that she’ll discuss it more in Chapter Five.

The point is, in most of these stories, the opening makes it very clear what the story is about. Readers want to know what they’re reading; they want to know it’s their kind of story. They don’t want to wander around in a story that doesn’t know what it is. That’s a story going nowhere.

page 17

The next part is who is telling the story, and that is a very very brief discussion of first person POV, third person POV, and mentioning that we’ll be discussing POV more in Chapter Five.

Next is which character should readers care about most. Munier is absolutely right that readers play favorites. She says if you’re lucky and if you’ve done your job right then the favorite character is your protagonist. As long as the reader falls in love with your main character or characters then the reader will follow them through hell and high water to reach the end. This is why it is important to make it clear from the beginning who the protagonist is and why the reader should care about them.

Look, I love big ole fantasy reads, the kinds with at least a handful of main characters, but I’ve seen some where we end up with dozens of main characters throughout the course of a series of 500+ page books. Sure, in a broadly generic way of thinking about it, Munier is right that we should be introduced to a protagonist and get attached to them in the beginning. But in epic fantasies, sometimes I meet my absolute favorite characters halfway through a book or halfway through the series.

That’s a genre expectation though. With an epic fantasy I expect to meet a huge cast of characters, and I know some I will love and some I will love to hate.

Where and when does the story take place is next. So, what is your setting, and how do you ground your story into that setting? What is unique in the setting for the story and how does it help to shape that story? A lot of times readers want to be taken somewhere they’ve never been before, or if you’re taking them someplace familiar then it needs to feel real and familiar.

Especially if you write general fiction or historical or real-world contemporary, and your setting is a real place, someone is going to recognize street names or place names (and they’re going to be able to tell if you try and make it all up instead). But even with fantasy, there’s certain themes or elements of the story that need to feel familiar, even if there are some unique differences. I can say from experience that both require research to make the setting feel real and make sense.

Next up is how should the readers feel about what’s happening? Because at the end of the day, most of the time when we read, we want to feel something. Munier says that the sooner you can evoke emotions in your readers, the sooner you can draw them into the story. So she suggests writers identify the emotion that needs to be evoked in the beginning and work on that. If you can successfully get the readers to feel that emotion, then the emotional pull will keep them reading to the next pages and beyond.

Finally, why should readers care about what happens next, which Munier says is a bigger and more complicated question than we might think. She says that this question has to do with the action happening as the story opens, the premise of the story, and the big idea of the story itself. Munier tells us that all three factors play into the reader caring about what happens next, and that if they don’t care then they won’t read on and you might have lost that reader forever.

These three factors can all be the same thing, or they can be different. For example in The Martian (by Andy Weir) the story opens with an astronaut alone on Mars, trying to survive. That’s the beginning action, the premise, and the big idea all together. Whereas Game of Thrones is a bit more complicated; it opens on Will and dead wildlings and then an encounter with Others, and the premise isn’t even revealed until like 50 pages later when Ned is named Hand of the King and it sets off a struggle for power, and obviously the big idea is an epic fantasy that is basically LOTR meets the Wars of the Roses. (Munier did say that Game of Thrones was often an exception). I’d argue that most epic fantasies are an exception, but again, I’m a big fan of fantasy.

At the very end of this first chapter we are given an exercise. Set a timer for ten minutes and write out the answers to these questions:

  • What kind of story is this?
  • What is the story really about?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • Which character should they care about most?
  • Where and when does the story take place?
  • How should they feel about what’s happening?
  • Why should they care what happens next?

Munier says if you can’t answer them all in ten minutes then you don’t know enough about your story yet.

I think this is an interesting exercise, and I’m going to sit down and try it with my current WIP. I’m not going to share my answers, not yet, but perhaps when I’ve finished with this book, I’ll share my book’s first chapter with all of you.

Well, that was a bit of a long post. Sorry, but my Weekend Writer deep dives always tend to get a bit long. Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope this is useful to some of you out there working on your own creative projects, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


4 thoughts on “Weekend Writer: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier – Chapter One: In the Beginning Was the Word – The Anatomy of a First Page”

  1. I’m diving back into writing seriously this year after many years of doing it for fun, so this was incredibly helpful and definitely gives me some things to think about. Thank you for this, and I look forward to more Weekend Writer posts!

    Liked by 1 person

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