I swore up and down when I started writing Passages and Passenges that I wouldn't make the same mistakes that I did when I was working on my first, failed novel. I've talked about this several times, most recently in my post Changing the Habit #5. I was fairly certain therefore that I would start, and just go with it. I was totally wrong.
Finding the beginning of my book took almost a year of writing the book. I still think that's totally nuts. There's a lot of pressure to get the beginning right. Right?
At first, I planned on starting with major action. So, chapter 1 opened ... explosively. Then, I realized that the cinematic, explosion filled approach was totally out of character (not in a POV that made any damn sense) for the way I was writing the novel. Scratch that.
Then, I moved the time frame forward about ten minutes and started after the explosions were done. I let my character deal with the aftermath, literally crawling his way out of the mess I had just made. While an interesting way to start the book, I realized that as a fantasy series, starting with a sci/fi element was really misleading to the reader. As cool as the first chapter was, again, it wasn't consistent. Scratch that one too.
I don't know exactly when I decided to start with the fantasy element of the book, but things started going much MUCH more smoothly at that point. But. My beta readers were concerned that starting the middle of the action didn't give me any chance to really explain the world, to explain the rules of the magic system I was using, or to setup anything. They were right, too. Scratch THAT as well.
Somewhere in the middle of my big rewrite that I did last year (I totally rewrote the book from page one after finishing a very rough draft) I wrote a chapter. I think it was chapter 21 originally. This chapter was one of a series of flashbacks, I believe it was the third such. I got very positive feedback on the chapter, and in fact, was strongly urged to move it up top. Instead of a flashback, make the action start there.
Where I am now, is that "21st" chapter is my first. What was the first chapter, the really action packed, fantasy scene, actually now happens about a quarter of the way into the second chapter. Even though my novel no longer starts with explosions and in the middle of nutso action, I do give the reader a much more grounded approach to the world and let them get to know and care about the characters a bit before I put them in mortal danger.
I know how much I stressed out about finding that great beginning for the book. After about two and a half years of working on the book, multiple failed attempts, I accidentally wrote a great beginning. Awesome!
I was listening to Writing Excuses recently and they happened to be talking about beginnings. Dan Wells made a really excellent point, that the beginning you write early on probably isn't going to be the beginning that actually makes it through all of your editing and rewrites anyway. So, there's no reason to stress about writing that perfect beginning when you start.
I can totally relate to that.
More, I recently suggested to a friend that if she's having trouble getting out of the beginning, just skip it. Start a chapter down the road a bit. We all know something is going to happen before that chapter, but often, it's actually easier to write the "real" beginning of the book after you understand your characters and your plot better than you ever will when you start writing on line one. Especially if it's your first book.
As always, writing is more important than hitting the nail on the head with every word. The act of writing five or six crappy chapters, early on, is much better than iterating over the first chapter again and again, trying to find that perfect beginning.