I finally decided that fate was fate and I might as well start working on my next novel instead of hoping a short story suggested itself. I had two choices - the speculative fiction or the sand-humping beach read. While I have a good idea of the major themes of the speculative fiction story -based on Hobb's theories on the role of the commonwealth and the motivations of the individual within a polis; and on the isolating influences of technology and how that affects communication - so obviously it's going to be a light comedy.
Where was I? Oh yeah. While I know the themes my speculative fiction will touch on, I don't quite have the nitty-gritty details of the story worked out. I've known the plot of the sand-humping beach read for almost a year, so I went with that instead.
No matter how well I know the story I'm telling, I'm still stuck with the problem of where to begin. The opening is one of the hardest parts of a novel. If I take a long running start at a story, I lose the reader. So I have to jump into the middle of action. But what action?
On the writer's lists I belong to, about twice a year we discuss great opening lines of novels. "The world is full of happy widows" from Love in the Time of Cholera is my favorite opening line. ("It's lovely to think so, isn't it?" from the Sun Also Rises is my favorite closing line.) A good opening line is important , but it can't survive on it's own. You can't count on "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," to carry an entire novel.
People can debate this - but I think the elements of a great first chapter are:
A example of the major conflict that will drive the story.
Actions and dialog that reveal the main character's defining traits.
A touch of mystery.
The opening chapter I envisioned didn't fit that criteria, which is partially why I avoided working on this novel. (the rest of the reason was pure obstinacy) I was mulling scenes, tumbling them around in my mind as I tried to figure out the exact sequence they belonged in, and somewhere in that mess I saw pieces that fit together in new ways to create a much stronger chapter one. It has all the elements I'm looking for. It begins in the middle of action, but not just any action. The conflict in the scene reveals Sam's major character flaw (in case the reader hasn't read Chaos Magic and doesn't already know Sam inside and out.), and sets up further conflict throughout the story. There's a little bit of mystery - what is that secret Sam almost let slip? And, of course, it leads up to a really hot sex scene. A beginning doesn't get much better than that.