Even for the most organised of us there is always an element of surprise when it comes to writing. Personally I find this excitement of discovery highly enjoyable. You may plan the journey, and may know the route, but you always encounter surprises along the way. The artistic vision in our heads hardly ever translates smoothly onto the page. As cartographers of an inner world, when we have that first map—that beautiful, strange first draft in our hands—we must take time to stand back and admire the brave route we’ve taken.
However, sometimes (and this is what the drafting process is for) we discover our original point of departure was perhaps not the most optimal. We find there are other points of embarkation with clearer signs and better views. Perhaps the second paragraph (or even second chapter) may make a better start than the first. This is because a lot of the first draft is spent working things out, it is the uncertain footfalls of a thrilling, undiscovered journey. And we naturally feel nostalgic about those first steps. But it’s only in hindsight, after the journey is complete or gained momentum enough that we see this.
So if you are writing the first draft—whether it’s a story or a novel—don’t worry, enjoy the journey, enjoy the surprises. If you are retracing and redrafting, then consider starting from square two. Look at cutting the first paragraph (or chapter) completely and see how that changes the story.
It often feels natural to begin at the beginning—a man waking up, a woman boarding a train. But unless these activities form part of the story it might be better to put them directly where they should be, have the man at this desk without the morning traffic jam; the woman at her estranged parent’s house without the train journey.
This is an extract from something I started recently. It describes a young man’s first day on a job. The first paragraph was me feeling my way. Later I dropped it and reworked the second paragraph as the start, which I feel works better.
Original first paragraph
Without any previous experience, being straight out of college, and by-passing the university route just to upset his parents, Jeremy took his first steps into the offices of Train 4 Work. The interview had gone well enough, he felt. Although the interviewers were not what he expected. The manager, Keith, stared mostly with steely eyes that said more than his words did. The other interviewer was described as the head engineer and workshop manager. His name was Daniel. He was a large man who wore a blue shirt two sizes too small and was out of breath throughout.
Revised first paragraph
Jeremy sat on a blue, saggy sofa in the reception of Train 4 Work with his hands on his knees. He adjusted the tie he’d borrowed from his dad and stared at the metal lockers, the large, framed paintings of expressionistic landscapes, and all the students milling with headphones on. The receptionist, who looked about nineteen, was flicking through a fashion magazine and filing her nails. Jeremy thought she was beautiful. He considered going up and talking to her, perhaps think of something witty to say about the magazine or something flattering about the teal colour of her nails. But Keith, the IT Manager, arrived at that point in a tatty pullover. He extended a sweaty hand, and saved Jeremy the agony of talking to the girl, who he decided at that moment, he loved.