Writer Q&As: How do you deal with a heavy manuscript beginning?

A question I wrangle with often is how to deal with the heaviness of my manuscript’s beginning. To make sense of the story, the ‘heavy stuff’ needs to be shared up front. It’s the catalyst for action. When the journey that follows is healing, uplifting, and at times, even funny, it feels so depressing to open with such weight. Becky Livingston

Yours is an important, very nuanced question. First, check the veracity of your assumption about the heaviness. Is this feeling within you?

Have you actually had that response from others? Sometimes it’s more our fear that it might be too heavy than how readers experience it.

Often the manuscript changes during the revision process. How you began it in an earlier version doesn’t always make sense in the most recent draft. It’s a different manuscript. Scaffolding is frequently a problem (see Breathing the Page).

Sometimes the writing that enabled us to get on the pulse of the narrative needs to be deleted later on. A characteristics of this kind of writing are too much explaining; too little evoking; not trusting the reader to deduce.

Look at the first twenty pages and let them guide you as to which piece(s) or chapter(s) now fit how the story and emotional contract with the reader now unfolds.

Sometimes what’s needed is a bit of deflection alongside the sobering part. When aspects of life that are tough — deflection, humor, sweet moments of respite do interlace. Is there is a moment or two like that which you can weave in? This cues the reader to the fact that you have a long-view perspective.

Not infrequently, what is needed at the beginning of the manuscript is yet to be written. The manuscript itself will try to signal this to you as it will either begin in a too obvious, flat-footed way or seem to lack a compelling focus. With Bloodroot — Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss, an editor suggested that I needed some writing about my dad’s death. She thought it seemed odd that I hadn’t mentioned it. I wrote a short but evocative piece that ultimately became the opening as it created a context, contrast and curiosity about my mother’s dying process.

With my collection of personal essays, Breathing the Page — Reading the Act of Writing, I spent two vexing years trying out different essays to begin the book with. None held up. None of the existing essays had the right focus and intimacy to ignite the reader to read the whole book.

In the eleventh  hour, I realized I needed to write one more essay. Once written, “Locating the Reader” was the perfect opening to the book. This was why I hadn’t been able to find the right essay: it didn’t yet exist!

Consider if there’s a piece you’ve yet to write. It may be the beginning that really clicks for you and your readers.

Answered by Betsy Warland.

Do you have any questions that you would like answered? Do you have a suggestion on what worked for you? Let us know in the comments below!

Posted by: Lindsay Glauser