|I’ve had enough questions – or big enough questions, at least – that I’ve decided to give myself the space of more than one post to tackle them. (This might also be a move calculated to give me time to think about some of the more complicated or more philosophical ones. I’m not an expert, here. I’m just some goob who has been trying since first grade to write things other people might like to read.)
It seems only fitting that we begin with beginnings, and it’s also the question that prompted this series of posts.
Hooboy. What is the best way to start off a novel? We can all agree that sitting down in front of that blinking cursor on the blank screen with an idea in your head and no clear plan of attack is one of the very worst parts about writing.
(The middle, of course, where you’ve gotten a fair start and know where you need to end up, but have to cover so much ground before you can get there, is also one of the worst parts about writing. And figuring out how to wrap everything up in a way that feels earned and is satisfying – also one of the worst parts. Basically what I’m saying is that writing is The Worst and why are we doing this to ourselves???)
Well, everyone has their own strategies – sometimes even rituals – to get them started. It really depends on what kind of writer you are. Me, I’m a Pantser with slight Architect envy, so that’s where all of my advice is going to come from. You have been warned.
Very generally, I would say that before you even sit down in front of that Blank White Screen, you need to have done certain work or you’re just torturing yourself. I assume, if you’re asking how to get started, that you have an idea. Excellent! That’s one very hard part of the job done. But who are the people living in the story, telling it, experiencing it? Trying to tell the story before you know who your characters are is certainly possible, but I promise it will give you unnecessary trouble. When you know who the people are, you know what they’ll do.
The stages of the story may sometimes be slow to reveal themselves, but when I have a solid understanding of my characters, I always know how they’ll respond at every stage of the plot – once I’ve figured it out.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Before I sit down, I have an idea, and I know my characters. I have to ask myself where it starts for my protagonist. Not “How far back is the earliest seed of the events that take place within the scope of the novel?” because I could literally trace the causal train back to the beginning of time. But where do events first affect my protagonist – or where does my protagonist first affect events?
(The beginning is no place for backstory. It is no place for flashbacks. If you’re already having to flash back in the first scene, you’re starting in the wrong place.)
All that having been said, I’m still sitting there in front of an empty screen and it is mocking me with its blankness.
Some people will advise skipping to the part that’s giving you trouble and getting right to the part that’s calling out to you at the moment, then cobbling it together once you have all the pieces. Solid advice if you can write this way, but many people cannot. I personally need the flow of events to bring me to the next scene naturally. More importantly, I would say that if you find yourself wanting to skip the scene that you imagine is the beginning to get to something that’s more interesting to you, that’s a pretty clear sign that you’re trying to start in the wrong place. Listen to your instincts.
Skip to the thing that’s interesting to you and start there, because your readers will probably agree with you.
When that dreaded Blank White Screen is staring back at me with evil intent, and I have my idea, and I know my characters, and it’s psyching me out anyway, I do have one surprisingly simple and effective trick: I will write the beginning out by hand in a notebook. It’s less threatening than the digital document for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, it’s more tactile. The physical connection of my pen to the page, my hand to the pen, in a direct conduit back to my thinkmeat, somehow makes the flow of ideas seem more natural. Second, I feel less pressure for the words I jot down with a pen to be perfect. They can be messy and out of order and informal – I’m going to have to revisit them anyway when I transfer them to the screen. I don’t always even worry about writing grammatically when it’s by hand. It’s much easier to vomit out the ideas that way.
(I’m writing this by hand right now, because the idea of talking about writing as though I have any authority to speak on the subject was freaking me out. Look how much I can’t stop talking this way.)
Similarly, if I’m having a hard time figuring out how a scene even begins, I have another trick. I’ll do a separate document – maybe by hand in the notebook – not intended to be part of the story, where I let loose an exploratory stream-of-consciousness babble about what I do know about the scene and the characters and where I want it to go, until something shakes loose. (I also did one of these for this post.) I discover a lot of things about my characters this way, and this is also where I tend to figure out what it is about a particular scene or story aspect that’s holding me back. It’s sort of like writing self-therapy.
But of course, the most important thing to remember about getting down the first few paragraphs of a story is that a rough draft doesn’t have to be good. This is not the time to get hung up on worrying about the hook or the perfect first line. All the first line of your first draft has to do is exist, so you can move on and write your story.
And I mean, that’s not to say that anything has to stay the way it came out in the first draft. The beautiful thing about digital word processing is that nothing is set in stone anymore. Once you’ve got it down on the page, and can take a step back and look at it, you can fix and rearrange all the things that didn’t turn out to be awesome even though it felt natural to write them happening the way.
In fact it’s sometimes even better to go back to the beginning once the draft is complete and add an opening line that really ties the whole thing together. It’s the kind of thing that makes you look like you really have your shit together as a storyteller. In the same vein, I wouldn’t spend energy worrying about setting everything up. You don’t know what “everything” is until you’ve written the story! Get in there, get enough down to move the action forward, and get out of there. You’ll fix it up in later drafts. Seriously, editing is where stories become great. To quote Stephen King: “To write is human, to edit is divine.”
In sum, your opening scene will happen so much more easily if you stop putting it under so much pressure.
And remember that you don’t have to get it out all at once. Writing one word a day, every day, is still writing.