Every writer’s dilemma: How to begin a novel?

Every writer dreads the beginning. How, oh how, to begin the novel? Is there a magical formula, one applicable to every genre, and to every writer? Many literary agents, and numerous editors believe so, hence the oft repeated dogma: If your story does not grab the reader’s [read: the literary agent’s] attention from the very first page then it only warrants a rejection slip.

What is a writer to do?

Be true to yourself, as this celebrated author of numerous works suggests:

“I am an author without talent who doesn’t even have a complete command of his own language. But it matters little. Read on at any rate, kind public. Truth is a good thing which compensates even for an author’s faults. This reading will be useful to you, and you will experience no deception, since I have warned you that you will find in my novel neither talent nor art, only the truth.

For the rest, my kind public, regardless of how you may love to read between the lines, I prefer to tell you everything. Because I have confessed that I have no trace of talent and that my novel will be faulty in the telling, do not conclude that I am inferior to the storytellers whom you accept and that this book is beneath their writings. That is not the purpose of my explanation. I merely mean that my story is very weak, so far as execution is concerned, in comparison with the works produced by real talent. But, as for the celebrated works of your favorite authors, you may, even in point of execution, put it on their level; you may even place it above them; for there is more art here than in the works aforesaid, you may be sure. And now, public, thank me! And since you love so well to bend the knee before him who disdains you, salute me!

Happily, scattered through your throngs, there exist, O public, persons, more and more numerous, whom I esteem. If I have just been impudent, it was because I spoke only to the vast majority of you. Before the persons to whom I have just referred, on the contrary, I shall be modest and even timid. Only, with them, long explanations are useless. I know in advance that we shall get along together. Men of research and justice, intelligence and goodness, it is but yesterday that you emerged among us; and already your number is great and becoming ever greater. If you were the whole public, I should not need to write; if you did not exist, I could not write. But you are a part of the public, without yet being the whole public; and that is why it is possible, that is why it is necessary, for me to write.”

From the preface to “What is to be done?” by Nikolay Chernyshevsky

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