Saturday, November 5, 2016

Macaroni and cheese

The act of crafting a great beginning sends many writers to Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or the bottle for answers, or a way to procrastinate. Personally, I Googled how to begin a novel so I could begin this blog post about how to begin writing.

The answer? There is no perfect way to begin. There are many ways to craft a beginning, and each rule or strategy has its merits, but every writer has to find his or her own way depending on the piece. However, I did learn that writing a great beginning can be difficult, intimidating and frustrating. 

Regardless of whether we follow the rules or break them, the way a writer begins a book, article or a blogpost gives the readers a path in to the world he or she created. In the speech class I teach, it's called an attention-getter; and in journalism, the lead (or lede) or hook. Regardless, each is a strategy designed as a preview of what's to come. Each word, line and paragraph work together to encourage the reader to continue. A great beginning creates desire. A great beginning creates the need to find out what happens, or explore the "what if?" A great beginning is essential.

That's a lot of pressure.

While watching a cooking show, I started to think about how the chef began the process. There were lots of utensils, equipment and ingredients scattered about. But if you go back before the the process began, the ingredients and equipment were scattered about a store, and before that, possibly scattered around the world. And before that, maybe the chef was a kid who grew tired of plain old macaroni and cheese and wanted to switch it up. So how do all these factors come together? With time, patience and desire to create something wonderful.

Every chef knows that his or her mac and cheese is not like anyone else's, and that's what makes the world an interesting place. And the recipe has probably changed from the first effort, and maybe quite a few times. What's right for one chef may not be right for another.

So when readers enter a world that may be self-contained, or spread out like the ingredients in a great dish, the writer has to find the right way in. He or she needs to guide us through the one door that will take us right to the heart of the story, and make it clear and interesting while asking questions and presenting options. The effort to begin the story effectively may be long and difficult, or maybe not. Maybe the simple blue box of macaroni and cheese is the secret comfort food your favorite chef craves, and that's OK.

Here's how authors began a few of my favorite books:

"Four hours out from Los Angeles I drove into nothingness."

            Jory Sherman, from The Ballad of Pinewood Lake

 "This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun."

            Mitch Albom, from The Five People You Meet in Heaven

"Begin here. It was raining." 

            May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude

"Jack is the church I have joined, but he is a church without ceremony."

            Martha Bergland, from A Farm Under a Lake

So I've learned that it doesn't matter how we find our way in, but that we are more likely to find the way that speaks to us. And the rules are followed, and they aren't, and sometimes the method that should work doesn't, and what shouldn't work does. Why? Because writing, like life, is complex and difficult and we all have a unique perspective, just like a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe.

Write soon,


  1. Great post! Loved your sharing beginning lines and thrilled to find May Sarton's name here. I read most of her books, esp. loved the journals, but of course you don't hear her name mentioned much these days. Have a good weekend.

  2. Thanks! I love her too, I've read a couple and just began The Journal in Solitude and was blown away by the beginning two lines so that's where the idea came from!

  3. I love a first line that makes me want to read more. It's such an art to craft one.


  4. Me, too! Some writers make it look so easy, but I normally have to put a lot of thought into it.

  5. Mary--You and Claudia have me intrigued about May Sarton.

    Yes, I usually read the first few lines of a book to see if it hooks me. If it doesn't, I usually don't buy the book.

    Great post, Mary.

  6. Thanks, Sioux. Sometimes I also flip to a random page in the middle of a book to see if it grabs my attention!

  7. A good first line is like a good first kiss, it takes your breath away and makes you want more.

  8. I love reading an excellent first line. I struggle writing one.