I'm engaged in some major rewrites of a novel that I've been chipping away at. The biggest challenge I came to when looking at this is realizing how much of the book changed over the course of writing it. Some parts of the beginning were promises that never came to fruition as the book wove its course, and other things weren't introduced that needed to be. All that was fine and dandy. Things evolve as you go.
This gave me the opportunity to really sit and percolate on the beginning, figure out new ways to roll with it. On reading over it again, I realized that a number of things about how I can do to hack it into better shape. Here are the top four lessons I took away from tearing apart and putting together the first third of this novel.
1) That first Chapter
This is one of the biggest things that I had to consider. That first chapter. After putting a call out for best first chapters, I drilled down into several of them and tried to figure out what makes the best first chapter. A lot of people have written full essays on this specific topic, but there are some real important things to consider here.
First of all - you need to have just an amazing hook. The entire first chapter is a hook to bite into the person, with each paragraph in turn being a smaller hook, and then the sentences (especially the first sentence) is smaller hooks. Fractal hooks the entire way down; trying to latch into that delicious human brain.
Lacking that hook is a sure way to lose people, and is much more important now than ever. If you're a first time author, or even just one that isn't super well known, this is what you need to do to be able to get people invested. This is the sample that Amazon can give them, or what they'll take a quick look at when on the bookshelf. Or, as is all too common, will make them decide whether they read your book and become more interested as an author, or if it will languish on the shelf, unread.
2) Introductions All Around
This is one that I see some people disagree upon, and there are certainly the rare exception. But in general, every major character needs to be introduced within the first third of the novel. At the least. This serves two purposes.
First, this is going to set up the promises. Deus Ex Machina is a problem because it feels like a violation of the promises that are established in the novel. To look at the counter of this, Chekov's Gun is the establishing of a promise. That gun is going to go off, and someone is probably going to die. Or at least be maimed. Maybe just startled by the gunshot. But you're setting up promises!
Writing a novel is about those promises. Establishing them and figuring out how you're going to match them, or cleverly weasel out of them. And you can do that - weasel out of those promises. You can write some great novels with that. But you need to be clever about it instead of just doing it bald faced. You trust the friend who gets out of a promise for a reasonable reason a lot more than the friend who just says "Yeah, I lied to you".
Just as important, this is going to help keep you honest as a writer. Minor characters can come and go more freely, but if you have a major character introduced late in the game, you run the risk of either not developing them enough, or all of a sudden developing them a whole lot in the middle of your book while every other character takes a back seat. That makes your writing lumpy like under-mixed pancake batter. That's not how I like my pancake batter, or my writing.
3) What's this all about then?
Speaking of setting up promises and making sure your plot isn't lumpy, things shouldn't take a hard left turn in the last act without proper foreshadowing. This isn't to say that there can't be revelations in the last third that change everything (I'm looking at you The Usual Suspects!) but these hard left turns should be the kind that when someone looks back over what they've read they say "Of course!" or "How did I miss that!" or they swear good naturedly at you, dear writer.
That's the real difference between whether people are going to get mad at your twists or not. Whether they accept it or not is going to determine whether they like your book or not.
A great recent example, in my view, of a book that tried this was Seveneves. About two thirds of the way through the book, there's suddenly this gargantuan shift in what the book is about and how things operate. This got me to put the book down - the shift didn't feel earned. I would have been happy with a novel about the stuff that happened after this shift, or one from before, but the two felt smooshed together and unappetizing.
These are three integral things to consider for writing (or rewriting) the beginning of your novel. Rules, like so many others, that are there to be played with, ignored, or considered. Best of luck with writing - please share other bits about writing beginnings below.