Beginning at the End

Sometimes it helps to start at the tail end.

Last week, I roughed out a new picture book manuscript. Before I started actually writing, I knew the main character inside and out. I also knew the last two lines of the manuscript. They are so fun that they are actually what drove me to move this up my to-do list and get it drafted.

But, as so often happens, draft #1 was so-so. It just didn’t sing until I got to those last two lines.

So I rewrote it.

Draft #2 was less bad then draft #1 but not significantly so. I added another stellar line. That meant that I had three really strong lines and a whole lot more that were still so-so.

Sunday I had an epiphany. Read a stack of picture books. Find stories that you love. Then work back from the ending. Fortunately I had new-to-me picture books from the library. I read and read and read.

While I liked the ending, none of them really worked as a mentor text. Where had I just read something about endings? About how endings set up your beginning?

I sat down at my computer to work and immediately found a blog post from Jane Friedman that I had marked. In “To Nail Your Memoir’s Beginning, Stop Looking in the Wrong Direction,” she wrote “Your book’s ending must reveal the story’s resolution. Once you know what your resolving, you can establish a clear path for getting there.”

I took another look at those two amazing lines that started it all. They told me who the character was as well as what his story problem had to be. With this in mind, I went back to the beginning. With just minor tweaking and an addition, I had a beginning that set this up perfectly. I worked through the manuscript, creating the perfect set up for the line to follow. Set up and delivery. Wind up and the pitch. Again and again until I reached the end.

I’m not going to say that the manuscript is perfect but it is so much stronger than it was because now I’ve got the scaffolding on which I can build the rest of the story. All it took was a recognition of where those last two lines were taking me.


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