I don't know about you, but I always struggle with knowing at what point my novel should begin. When that big ole story is rolling around in your head, and every detail seems crucial to you the author, finding that precise point where the main action begins isn't as easy as it sounds. As mentioned in the previous post on prologues, the author often sees as crucial information the reader won't see as crucial at all.
Your crit partners are a fantastic resource for helping you get to the heart of your story's beginning if they've been following your story for several chapters. If they've only read a few chapters, they may not be able to tell.
But I also found another technique helpful. Pretend you're going to submit your story to a contest--even if you really aren't. I tried that for the first time tonight and it gave me a clear view of my story I did not previously have. Here's why:
1. I put myself in the shoes of an early round reader of a writing contest.
I may not know what it's like to be an editor or agent, but I do know what it's like to be an early round judge/reader in a contest. I've done it for screenplays. I've done it for novels.
Let's say you're a reader for a large contest that gets, oh, say, 300 entries. And most of those entries arrive at the last minute (it is wise for potential contest entrants to keep this fact in mind). You have to read a LOT of manuscripts--one right after the other to make the judging deadline. You're tired. You're cranky. You're not getting a free pass from the rest of your life responsibilities while you read. You're getting cross-eyed. You've already had to wade through dozens of manuscripts that couldn't even follow simple formatting instructions. Though you desire to give it your 100% best, it won't take much for you to give a lower score to a manuscript if it doesn't stand out right from the beginning.
2. Everybody has ADD.
We live in a soundbyte society. Even our churches can't sing whole hymns any more, just a few phrases over and over (I sometimes wonder if churches realize there are VERSES to Awesome God, but I digress). It affects everyone. Not a trend I like, but it is a fact. And that 15-20 pages you submit to a contest is the 'soundbyte' of your entry. Sort of a Name That Tune for fiction writers and you only get a few pages to strike a chord with that contest judge or reader. You gotta make it count.
3. They don't care about the rest of your manuscript.
At least not right then. The distinct advantage a contest reader or judge has is that they don't have to overflow their brains with the entirety of your story--they haven't been agonizing over the story for years, they're just looking at the beginning. Their heads aren't full of the story 'baggage' that you the author carry around. They're detached and can look at your opening from a practical standpoint.
So tonight I sat down with my story and asked: What if it were submitted to a contest? What if my only chance to win Name That Tune had to be done in 20 pages or less?
The result was an experiment of cutting my first 47 pages down to 15. I think I'm onto something. It has potential.
If you haven't tried it, I recommend it. Give it a whirl and just see what the results are. You might be surprised at the clarity the experiment gives you.