In college one of my writing instructors used to talk about “backing into a story”. Another way to think of it is the writing before the writing. Sometimes it just takes a while to find the voice and the proper place to begin a novel.
In The Water Castle, Ephraim and his family leave Boston for Maine so that his father can recuperate from a stroke. In early drafts, I began with this stroke:
Breakdown. Like a car on the side of the road. But it wasn't a car; it was their father. Some sort of misfiring connection in his brain. Brynn, Ephraim, and Price sat in the waiting room of the hospital while their mother was in their father's room talking with the doctors.
I started in the hospital as Ephraim and his siblings waited to hear the news of their father’s diagnosis. From there, they take the train home, pack, and get ready to drive up to Maine.
While these scenes served their purposes in terms of introducing the readers to the characters and setting up the scenario, they were also weighed down by needless detail. Time was spent describing a home that we would never see again in the book. And packing? What was I thinking? Perhaps the one thing less enjoyable than packing is reading about it.
I knew I needed to get the children to the actual setting of the story faster, and to set things in motion, I was reluctant to make the necessary changes. Primarily my resistance was because I loved those first lines to describe the stroke. And while of course I was familiar with the advice to “kill your darlings” (often incorrectly attributed to William Faulkner), it takes a lot for me to commit murder. Eventually I convinced myself that I needed to start in the car as the family drives north.
Their mother had tried to make the trip seem fun, like a vacation. “We’re going to Maine, dear!” she’d cooed to their father. His lack of response reminded Ephraim, Price, and Brynn that this trip had nothing to do with fun.
My goal with this new opening was to establish the two essential facts that start the story: the family is leaving home, and there is something wrong with the father. As the chapter progresses, more details are filled in. This allows for the same character development, all be it in a compacted way. With short flashbacks I could tell the story of the stroke -- and even use that beloved line -- without giving every single detail. Within the first chapter, they arrive at the Water Castle itself, and we can begin exploring their strange new home -- the setting that actually matters.
Another bit of advice I got in college was that you have to write the piece before you can write the beginning. This professor was talking about analytical essays, but the same is true of fiction. When working on a novel, write the story as it comes to you, the find -- or, more likely, craft -- the place where your book actually begins.