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Weekend Writer: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier: Chapter Eight: Fine-Tuning Your Beginning – Bulletproof Your Beginning

Hey all, Sam here.

We have finally reached the final chapter on this book about beginnings. I actually finished reading and taking notes on this book a few weeks ago because I just wanted it to be over. Who knew you could talk for almost 250 pages about the topic of beginnings? Don’t get me wrong: it’s obviously a big and important aspect of the creative writing process. If you don’t grab someone’s attention in the beginning, then you’ll never get them to the beginning, let alone the end.

And I appreciated that Paula Munier gave us a bunch of examples, not just from things she has written herself (although she does use her own writing many times), but from a variety of authors and genres, so it really helps to showcase different options when it comes to effective beginnings.

Since this is the last installment of Weekend Writer for The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell, I’m going to partly treat this as I would any of my book reviews and give a rating for the book. I had thought that it was going to be a solid 4 stars based on the first couple of chapters, but by the second half of the book, I felt like I was merely slogging my way through each chapter, and so overall I’m giving this 3 stars. I still learned some nice tips and tricks from this experience, and I can see how it would be useful for writers (or even editors if you want to know what you should be looking for in a manuscript), but I was just tired by the end.

I will say that these Weekend Writer deep dive breakdown posts go way more in depth than my standard book review, though, because I do not typically go chapter by chapter or section by section.

All right, let’s jump into the final chapter of this book.

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

Chapter Eight: Fine-Tuning Your Beginning: Bulletproof Your Beginning

Hey guess what, this chapter begins with Munier telling us once again how important the beginning is, because it’s the beginning that agents and editors are going to ask to see, whether that’s the first page, the first chapter, the first ten pages, fifty pages, or one-hundred pages.

Were we aware of that everyone, that the beginning is the first part that people are going to read? Sorry for the sass, but it has been mentioned over and over again that beginnings are important and that they are the first thing that readers, agents, or editors will read. I think we all understand this basic fact. It is not often that someone just flips open a fiction book to the middle and starts reading. Non-fiction, possibly, but not typically with fiction.

So, before you submit your manuscript to these agents and editors, Munier recommends doing another read-through and test for narrative thrust, because she says this is the most important revision to do. Sure, you’ll do plenty more edits with an editor, edits that focus on clarity or language, and you’ll do copy edits and line edits. Right now you have to read through the story and ask yourself questions.

Ask the main questions such as who, what, when, where, why, and how. Ask the big question of what drives the whole plot of the story. Ask the middle questions about what drives each scene. And Ask the small questions about the small specific details throughout the story. So, read through and look at the macro, meso, and micro questions and details throughout your story and make sure that they have answers and they all connect.

Munier then spends 16 pages going through the opening of her story Spare the Stones, which she had gone through in an earlier chapter with all of us readers. She goes through it again, pointing out information like the fact that her title fits with the genre she’s writing in, and then delves into things like who, what, where, when, why…reading through and asking all of those story questions that were briefly touched on at the beginning of this chapter.

It is recommended that you do this with your own beginning: trim backstory, lose any info dumping, avoid phone calls, murder your darlings, and all the other advice given in previous chapters. Actually, Munier says to do this with your whole story, not just the beginning.

There is a handy exercise added to the chapter at this point, one focused on pacing. Basically, get a pen and paper and set a timer for fifteen minutes. Take the first thirty pages and cut it by ten percent. Then do it again and cut another ten percent. After doing that look at the story and see how much better the pacing is, and then take note of what you cut out of your story.

From there we move into an Act One Checklist on page 232, which gives a bunch of questions to ask yourself when going over your opening. Some of these questions ask if your title is compelling and aligned with your genre, some ask if you’ve made characters the readers will care about, some ask if you have the right POV and the right dialogue. After going through all of these questions, then you can go through and polish the prose again and again to really make it shine.

Munier also includes a list of books that are useful for editing the prose:

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, and Roger Angell
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
  • The Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
  • The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller
  • Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
  • How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish

After that we go into a Copy Editing Check. Munier points out that when you submit your work to publishing professionals such as agents or editors, you are showing it to people who make their living by being sensitive to language. These are people who know grammar, spelling, and punctuation. So before you submit, you need to make sure your writing is clear and clean and concise.

Munier gives a number of items on a checklist that you can use for copy writing your manuscript.

  • When in doubt, delete it, AKA Murder Your Darlings. If you write a line that you’re really proud of, delete it and rewrite it, because nobody likes a show off. Okay, look, I love a well-written line. If that is something you are skilled at, then please please keep those awesome lines in.
  • Trust your critical instincts. If while editing you doubt if something works a certain way, then delete it and/or rewrite it.
  • Read your work out loud. Honestly, this is advice that I definitely find useful. When we read silently it is easy for our minds to gloss over any errors in spelling or grammar because we know what we meant to say and so we substitute it for what is actually written. When you read out loud, you stumble over any clunky phrases or missing words.
  • Pay attention to your characters’ names. Make sure they are easy to read, easy to pronounce, easy to spell, not too similar to other character names, and keep in mind the background and temperament of the character.
  • Lose the Dialect. Drop the dialect and use word choices and sentence structure that makes regional speech patterns more clear.
  • Soften the hyperbolic language. If a scene is dramatic, make sure the action stands on its own.
  • Stick to American English. If your aim is to contract with a US publisher, then make sure to follow American grammar and spelling and punctuation.
  • Check the reading level. Run a reading level test on your prose. The average newspaper in the US is written at a sixth grade reading level. You want to aim for something in the sixth to eighth grade range; anything more and you’ll want to simplify it.
  • Check your dialogue tags. Don’t overuse creative tags when you could get away with said instead. Or you could use action statements instead.
  • Cut the cliches.
  • Replace weak verbs with strong verbs. This is especially true for forms of the verb “to be.” Also discard overused verbs that clutter up your prose.
  • Axe the adverbs. If you have strong verbs then you don’t need adverbs to describe the verbs.
  • Infuse your language with the power of the senses.

Another writing exercise recommends swapping pages with a writer friend, printed out pages, and go over it with red pens. I like editing with many different color pens. It makes it more fun and pleasing for me, so I’m pretty sure the color doesn’t matter. What matters is that after editing the pages, you go over the edits and the notes. Then you can make note about your work, their work, and your editing skills.

Munier also spends some time talking about professional editors. Copy editing addresses spelling and grammar, inconsistencies, fact-checking, and any redundancies and repetitions, while Line editing does that plus also addressing flow, clarity, and suggesting reworking or rewriting awkward sentences and more. If you hire a line editor or copy editor and have them edit fifty or a hundred pages, have them edit on a hard copy so you can see what they do, input the changes yourself, and also start learning how you can better self-edit.

From there we go into looking over the beginning once again, and Munier gives checklists to consult before submitting to any sort of publishing professional. Pages 238-240 have a first page checklist, a first ten pages checklist, a first fifty pages checklist, and a first one hundred pages checklist…so you’ll have to check the book out yourself if you want to know all the specifics.

Every story is only as good as its beginning, or so Munier says. I have mixed feelings on this. While a good beginning will draw me in and get me hooked, if the middle or even the end drop off and flop, I won’t continue on to the next book (if there is a next book in the series, or I’ll be cautious about the author’s next release if not a series).

But this book has absolutely enforced and reinforced the importance of beginnings. There were some good pieces of information in it, and some bits that I’ll take with a grain of salt, modifying them based on what I know I’m trying to achieve with my writing and my goals. I hope this deep dive through The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell was useful to you as well.

Good luck with writing and editing your own beginnings.

Next week is the prompt/writing share post for the month. And starting next month we’ll be jumping into a new book on the craft of creative writing.

I didn’t receive any votes on my Twitter poll, so I still need to figure out which of these books I’m delving into next:

  • Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
  • Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Expert Advice to Bring Authenticity to Your Fantasy Writing by Dan Koboldt
  • Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel by Cheryl St. John

If you have any preference, let me know in the comments…otherwise I’m probably just going to make my husband pick one, so I don’t have to make the decision myself. In time I hope to go through all of these books in this blog series, but since it takes a couple months or so per book, it might be a while until I get around to some of them.

Well, that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


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