I’ve been working on a couple of new projects lately, including Deadtown #4 and a side project that invaded my brain one day—and the only way I can get it out seems to be through my fingers and onto the page. 🙂
Starting a new project is hard. It’s one of the times when that inner editorial voice shouts the loudest, just when the new project is most fragile. That editorial voice is indispensable in later phases—but not at the very beginning. To go with a spring analogy, it’s kind of like yelling at a shoot that’s struggling to emerge: “YOU CALL YOURSELF A FLOWER? WHERE’S THE BLOOM? YOU’RE HARDLY EVEN GREEN! YOU’RE JUST A THIN, PALE, SICKLY STRAND OF NOTHING!”
Or, to use another analogy, it feels a bit like this old Monty Python radio sketch on novel writing as a spectator sport. (Thanks to K.A. Laity for the link.)
When I start, I’m aware of everything that a beginning has to do: grab readers’ attention, introduce the characters, set the tone, provide an entry into the novel’s world, and draw the reader into the story. The writer has to accomplish this as quickly as possible, and without confusing the reader, because we know we have only a few sentences to convince someone to read on.
That’s a lot of pressure. And tons of pressure is exactly what you don’t want weighing you down at the start of a project. That kind of pressure can lead to endless procrastination: tweaking the outline a bit more, doing a little more research, writing pages of notes and ideas instead of scenes.
But a story unfolds only in the telling. So at some point you have to figure out how to get past the internal voices and worries and just start.
Here’s how I do that: I don’t try to start at the beginning. I look for the scene I can write, and then I write it.
That scene doesn’t have to be the opening. In fact, at this point I can just about guarantee that it won’t be the opening. In all of my novels but one so far, I’ve had to go back in the second draft (or later) and completely rethink/rewrite the opening scene. So I look at my outline and see where it feels like I can get a toehold into a scene, and start there.
When I used to teach academic writing, I always advised students to write an essay’s introduction last. Why? Because when you sit down to craft your argument, you don’t yet know what you’re introducing. Once you’ve got a draft of the argument, you can figure out the best way to introduce it. Writing the intro last also makes it easier to link the intro and the conclusion, which creates a satisfying sense of closure.
The same reasons apply to fiction. I can best figure out how to invite the reader into a story once I’ve got the story drafted. And a story really feels like it’s come full circle if there’s a connection between the beginning and the ending. Once I know where the story ends up (I do outline, but that doesn’t mean the story sticks to my initial ideas), it’s much easier to craft a beginning that points there.