I'm back on Current Writing Project (and, um, hoping that a better working title suggests itself at some point). I've been working on this thing -- or making false starts on it, anyway -- for over a year. Back around Christmas, I stopped and sorted all the abortive first chapters into categories, based on how they approached the opening of the story. That was actually helpful, but I'm still not quite going.
In the process of asking around, I've gotten some really good advice about how and where to start a story. A lot of it is stuff that I swear I used to know, intuitively; but I don't live in my story worlds the way I did when I was younger. (I also find it a lot more difficult to find unbroken stretches of more than, say, twenty minutes for writing... so it's also a lot harder to immerse myself in the process of writing.)
Anyway, I'm down to choosing one of two approaches. The first is to start in the moment just after disaster has struck and the world has turned to badness, and fill in the background from there. It looks like this:
Somber stood with one hand pressed against the wall and looked at the carnage around him, thinking: Did I do this?
The room was an abattoir. The floor was soaked in blood and littered with body parts. The air was heavy with the smells of blood and fear and human waste. Somber had woken up in the middle of it. His clothes were soaked with it, his body chilled. He couldn't stop shivering. He didn't know if that was cold or shock, but it probably didn't matter. Everyone here was dead, except for him. Did I do this? he wondered again.
It didn't seem possible. His sword, the single-edged, straight blade of the Watch, was still on the floor; the baton that everyone in the Watch carried was still in its sheath at his side. Unless everyone in the room had stood still while he cut them to pieces, he couldn't possibly have managed something like this -- even if he'd wanted to. But if it hadn't been him, then how had he survived whatever had happened?
He didn't trust himself; didn't trust his thinking. He only knew that he needed to get out of here, needed to call for help, and needed to get himself back together so that he could figure out -- or remember -- what had happened.
It's not a bad opening, I don't think. In fact, if I were building this as a video game instead of a book, it would be fine. You could put the player in the room, let him or her look around at the various body parts and realize that some of them couldn't be human, have them pick up the sword and try a few practice swings with it, before they exited the room and started trying to find their way out. You could add further clues about their situation along the way.
But I don't think I want to do it that way. No, I think I want to start a few days earlier in the timeline, to introduce Somber in what is currently his "ordinary world", and let the reader get to know him a little before everything goes wrong. That opening looks more like this:
Somber saw the practice blade coming, but couldn't get his own blade back up in time to block it. The practice blades were wooden and scribed with words of protection, so it didn't connect hard enough to crack his skull, but it still hit hard enough to send him crashing onto his back on the mats.
Standing over him, Valius shook his head. "Why are you still here? You're the worst swordsman I've ever seen. They're never going to make you a full warden."
Because this way I have a place to sleep and some income, and the Order is much less likely to find me. Why do you think I keep attending practice after I've finished my shift? Somber didn't say any of that; he just shrugged and climbed back up to his feet. Valius was still an apprentice, just as Somber was. His opinion didn't count for much, and Somber didn't like him enough to feel compelled to explain himself. That didn't mean he was wrong about Somber's skills or his likelihood of remaining with the Watch, but that was Somber's problem rather than his.
"Somber! Valius! Enough sparring!" The new voice was sharp with command, and the man speaking stepped onto the mat and moved between them without hesitation. "Valius, you're making that same attack. Somber, when he slams your blade to the outside like that, you need to stay with him and follow his blade back in. You'll have to use footwork to keep your distance -- you remember footwork, right?"
"Yes, Grandfather." It took no effort to keep his voice respectful; the man he called Grandfather might be three times his age, but he could beat Somber into the ground with or without weapons -- and he knew how to train others to his level of skill.
"Good." Grandfather put his hand out, and Somber handed him the practice blade. He only came up to Somber's shoulder, which made him shorter even than Valius, but he was solidly built. The passing of years seemed to have stripped him down to little more than muscle and bone, with a thin layer of skin over the top.
Grandfather looked at Valius. "Quarter speed. Attack."
Valius raised his sword and brought it down, stepping in with a diagonal sweep of his blade. Grandfather let his blade be pushed aside, but shifted his weight and stepped back to take himself out of the way of the return stroke. "If you do this correctly, you can follow his blade back in and take a nice cut at his wrists." He turned and handed the practice blade back to Somber. "Try it. Half speed for the first five passes. Then up to three-in-four."