EVERYBODY WANTS TO avoid the rookie mistakes; the things that scream out to a reader (or an editor, or an agent), "I am really, really, really new at this, and not quite sure what I'm doing yet."
So let me share with you the one thing that, often on the first page, tells me I am reading the work of a writer who is still beginning to navigate the waters of fiction writing.
They start twice.
Often, when I review a manuscript, I'll read what appears to be the beginning of a story. And then, a few paragraphs down (or, in a novel or novella, in the next chapter), the story will present what appears to be a second starting point.
There are a few reasons for this. One is over-delivery of information. We want readers to understand what the characters look like, what the setting looks like, and so on. So we pile that in, and then we get around to story.
Or, with more experienced writers, we understand that we have to create a sense of normalcy or peace in order to disrupt it and create conflict, so we start with a pastoral opening. Then we introduce conflict and the story starts.
Or (and this, I think is the most common), we write our way to the beginning. That is, we start at what we think is the beginning of the story and then, in the process of writing it, we arrive at the true beginning.
So how do you tell where the true beginning is? For me, one question that I ask is, "How many elements of a story are here?" If I have setting, and characters, but no conflict, then I probably haven't arrived at a story yet. And yes, I know that conflict does not work if we are not yet invested in the character. So a way I typically solve this is by introducing an early conflict: something that is going to be overcome in the space of a few pages, but still gets the reader wondering how the character is going to get out of trouble.
In In High Places, a novel that centers around the world of rock climbing, my story begins in the middle of a climb, with a character who does not know if he's equal to the task at hand. In the process of talking about that climb, and its aftermath, I'm able to get closer to what will be a central issue of that novel: a strained family dynamic. This frees me from beginning by showing the family at home, then sending them on the trip, and then getting to the rock climb, which is where the issues truly begin to emerge. By skipping all the throat-clearing, I allow the reader to start where the story starts, on the first rung of a ladder of increasing jeopardy.
How do you avoid beginning twice? Some writers never do. But the difference between the professionals and the newer writers is that, when the pros realize that they are starting twice, they go back and get rid of that false, preliminary beginning. And that allows them to bring the reader into the storyworld at the proper moment: when the story begins.