I can still remember my dismay the first time I heard, “your story doesn’t start until page twelve (or twenty, or maybe fifty).” And I can still feel the scalpel slicing into my eye as I realized that the criticism was just. I’ve also discovered that jabbing this bitter judgment into some budding writer after sitting through endless pages of tedious back-story does not salve my own hurts. Instead, I’ve learned (operative verb) to cut away the dead tissue of my verbal throat-clearing, and start my stories where I strike the living flesh.
Or have I learned? Despite the fact that I have brooded over my novel “Gant” off and on for more than ten years, the question of where to begin refuses, like a festering wound, to close. It isn’t that I can’t pick out the obligatory starting point. The romance in the tale begins when Gant strides into the orchard, startles Lissa at her apple picking, and plucks her out of the air as she falls. If I were merely writing a romance, I would start on page twenty-one.
Like all my novels, however, “Gant” is at least two stories. Besides the romance that may be a fundamental element of the all the best stories, there is the tale of the ugly duckling misfit who will mature, if he survives at all, into a majestic and powerful swan. This is the story of Gant the giant.
Born at normal size, Gant is obliged to grow to seventeen feet tall in the same time a normal boy grows to maybe six feet. Rejected by the man he believes to be his father, kidnapped into a circus, and eventually turned out of doors to live in a cave with a bear, Gant grows up uncertain of himself, and of his worth.
Must this back-story occupy the critical first chapters of the book? Perhaps not. For much of the novel’s gestation, I arranged for the reader to pick up Gant’s history from scattered hints, the way we assemble an understanding of new friends we make in life.
Is the story strengthened by dragging through Gant’s painful early years? The romance with Lissa is not, but the coming of age story, in which Gant is used by his prince as a war machine, and then rescues his people after the prince’s perfidious attempt on his life flows naturally from the ugly duckling years. This is the fundamental story of the novel. It begins with Gant’s birth, and determines the best place to pick up the narrative.
It is wisdom, however, to keep all of the stories we are attempting to tell in mind, and bring them along from the beginning of a novel. Somehow, I had to start the fire between Gant and Lissa in the first chapter, when he was a babe in arms, and she a child of three. In storytelling as in science, the solution to a problem follows naturally from its clear articulation. I introduced a series of back-and-forth cuts that I learned from screenwriting, beginning with a jump from the foreboding of Gant’s birth to Lissa’s first clash with her mother’s will. This series of alternating images promises that they are destined for one another.
Did I start the story in the right place? Do we care about the awkward gosling? Does the savor of anticipating the romance sharpen the hunger for its resolution? Ultimately, it is the reader’s place to judge. If you want to be a reader, and to judge for yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you a pre-release copy of “Gant.”