SLUSH LESSONS: What? Where am I?

I’ve seen it over and over again, not only in my own stories, but in the slush pile: the tale begins as the main character wakes up. Be it in bed, in a suspended-animation tube, in a hospital, in a dark room—wherever—these beginnings are always the same. I know other editors who hate these beginnings with a passion, and I’m starting to see why.

Beginnings are hard, at least for me. Before I find that right voice, or POV, writing the beginning of a story can feel more like trying to slip into a pair of jeans that are too snug, too big, or too orange. Wake-up beginnings are a safe way to start a story because the author gets to wiggle around a bit before really getting to the meat. The character needs to look around (“Where is this story taking place?”), think about their situation (“Why am I telling this story?”/”How am I going to hook the reader?”), and then—usually—remember who they are (“Who is my character?”). It’s a who-what-when-where-why kind of beginning: all the info laid out at your feet.

But when I say “safe”, I mean that these beginnings are safe for the writer. It’s an easy place to start, and a lot of writers do it. Heck, I do it! But it’s a crutch. The stories that tend to stand out in the slush pile are ones in which we step mid-breath into an already unfolding scene. It doesn’t have to be high-action; it can be mid-conversation in a drawing room, so long as it’s interesting conversation. A beginning that steps unapologetically into the middle of things screams confidence and pre-thought: the author knows their world and what is happening so well that they don’t need to break it down for you the way wake-up beginnings do. Their world already exists, things are already happening and have been happening for years: you’re the one just stepping into it now.

And that’s not to say that wake-up beginnings can’t work. I’ve read a few that have worked brilliantly. Just remember, they’re very common, they’re fairly simple to write, and lots of other authors use them. Why not go back to that story you’ve got with the wake-up beginning and try something a little more daring?

(Note: I realize I’m using “their”, “they”, etc. as a word to replace “he” or “she” when referring to the anonymous “author”. I don’t care. Choosing either “he” or “she” annoys me, and for this, as a blog, I’m going to write it how I like. So there! XP)

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