By Kathryn Craft
A writer must start somewhere, and so I do, although agonizingly. I am jealous of authors who wake up with opening lines in mind and claim that throughout the writing process, they never change them. It would be lovely to know I’m building on such a strong foundation—but to satisfy me as well as orient the reader, the opening must contain the genes of the story’s entirety, which I won’t have a thorough sense of until after the second draft. But once I do, I adore writing the opening. The opening pages of both The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy were the last fresh additions to my novels before turning them in.
Once underway, the challenge, of course, is how to proceed from there. As a developmental editor, I’ve learned that a novel that runs out of gas in the middle can rarely be fixed in the middle. It needs more fuel up front: a deeper desire to drive the character’s story goal, a more profound backstory motivation to drive forward action, or higher stakes should the character’s story goal not be met. I spend a lot of time on these aspects.
To get the ideas flowing from there, I create a stew that gets my brain arcing between disparate ingredients:
- a true event that gets me wondering (surviving a 14-story fall; sustaining hope during a suicide standoff).
- two other concepts or relationships (body image issues plus a friendship with someone who has cystic fibrosis; a 12-hour structure plus the mothers’ lifelong friendship).
- a protagonist who must empower herself to embrace change.
- five or more emotional turning points that will push the protagonist along her arc.
- a cast orchestrated around a premise (relationship to body/food; ways of dealing with despair) so that their varying perspectives bring them into conflict.
- any research necessary to bring the setting to life.
I have a graphic on my bulletin board. A thought bubble pointing to a character’s head says, “Fill your brain with all of the information,” and another pointing to his chair says, “and then sit a spell.” I write the middle while sitting for a long spell.
My characters are always transformed in some way, and so far, that change has been a known target I’m reaching for. Building the story so that the ending I want feels inevitable and emotionally satisfying requires some reverse engineering. In this way, even the ending can inform the middle, so that the right kind of escalating pressure can push the main character to the point where the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing.
All of that allows me to write the beginning.
Kathryn Craft is a freelance developmental editor and the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts writing retreats for women, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.