How Do You Start?

I would like to start by thanking everyone who visited the various blogs that hosted me during my Eat Crow and Die Blog Tour. And congratulations to Patrick Siu who won the gift card.

How do you start? That was the question asked by a new member at a writers’ group I attended yesterday. The answer, of course, is simple. You start by writing.

The problem is most new writers have so many ideas bouncing around in their heads, they don’t know where to start. They feel they have to have a beginning that tells the reader all about the characters: how they got to this point, why they want what they want. If the writers have read How-To books, they also know a good opening must have a hook, conflict, give an idea of the setting, time period, tone and so on. Or if it’s non-fiction, they feel they must tell the reader exactly what they’re going to prove with the article or book. They feel the opening has to be perfect. And often when they do start writing, they discover what they’ve written doesn’t sound as good on paper as it did in their heads. They get discouraged and quit.

To start, one has to realize those initial words, sentences, and paragraphs don’t need to be perfect. Most writers, new or experienced, soon discover the opening needs to be scrapped or changed before the piece takes the form they want. Only a few writers can mentally create an article, lecture, or novel in their heads. Most writers have a general idea of what they want and how to put it together, or they may have mentally viewed scenes as if watching a movie, but it isn’t until those words are actually written (on paper or on a computer) that they can see what needs to be added, deleted, or rearranged.

The answer on how to start is simply start. The final piece may take a linear form (opening, middle, and end), but your initial writing doesn’t need to be in that form. Know exactly how you want the story to end? Write it down. Know a scene that you think would be great for the story? Write it down.

Once you have those scenes or ideas written, you can rearrange, rewrite, or totally cut. In the process of writing, more ideas will develop that can be added to your initial idea. Or maybe you’ll decide to go a different direction. In fiction, characters often take over. If the writer has developed three-dimensional characters, those characters may not react in a way that fits the writer’s original idea. Well developed characters will make the story stronger.

If you are a linear writer (as I am) and can’t simply write a scene here and there, then write from start to finish, but don’t feel what you write initially must be perfect. Anne Lamott (bird by bird) calls it the “shitty first draft.” Make yourself think of it that way. Just get the idea out of your head and into a written form.

Then step away from it. Leave it for a few days. If you think of things you want to add, write them down on a sticky note or separate file.

Once you’ve given yourself time away, then go back and read what you’ve written. Then start the editing and polishing. Now you can because you have something that’s more than an idea. It’s more than a blank piece of paper.

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14 Responses to How Do You Start?

  1. Good advice. The only way to be a writer is to start writing and not worry about perfection. First, the rough draft.

  2. Sheila York says:

    Absolutely! Aim for the shitty first draft! In the (limited) amount of mentoring I’ve done, I’ve found that new writers are often not prepared for the amount of rewriting they’re going to have to do. Put it all on the page, a big hairy mess. Then fix it. then fix it again. And again. That’s the first novel.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Oh, Sheila, you are so right about the amount of rewriting and editing. But that’s actually the part of writing I like the most. For me, it is difficult to get that first draft out of my head and onto paper, but once I do, I can sculpt it into the story I want to tell.

      • Sheila York says:

        Me too. Me too. I love revision. Getting in there and crafting the story I can now SEE. Fortunately, authors don’t have to messenger the drafts back anymore, or I’d be the one clinging to the guy’s leg, shouting “Wait, one more thing on page 58!”

        • Maris Soule says:

          However, Sheila, I sometimes read the book after it’s been published and wish I could “do over” something. That’s my “Wait, one more thing…” moment.

  3. That’s exactly how I write. Whew! Good to know I’m not alone. That hairy mess of a first draft, seemingly unrelated scenes that somehow come together. And oh the rewrites! But would we have it any other way?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Margo, I’ve tried doing a scene here and another from another part of the book, and that method simply doesn’t work for me. But sometimes during a rewrite I will move a scene from one place in the story to another. As long as it’s there to see, I can do that. In my head…nope.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful advice. Even if they aren’t sure about where to start, by writing down what they do know (character sketches) they have pieces of information to pull from for their story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Yep, Melissa. That’s what we told him yesterday. He just needs to start writing what’s in his head. Once he’s started, it will begin to come together.

  5. Becky Lower says:

    Great advice here. Like you, Maris, I’m a linear writer and can’t write out of sequence to save my life. In my most recent book, coming out in September, an editor wanted me to move a scene further up in the story, and it was like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle and reworking it. I got it done, but it was a mental struggle for me.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Years ago I ran into a similar situation, Becky. The editor wanted a love scene to occur earlier in the book. That really threw me for a loop for a while. And, like you, I finally got it done, but it was a struggle.

  6. Diane Burton says:

    Great advice, Maris. Just write. I write so many “first” chapters until I get it write. I write the other chapters, too, then go back to revise the first one. But my finished product never resembles the 1st draft.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Diane, I remember when Harlequin used to buy on a synopsis. My editors told me not to worry if the finished product wasn’t the same as the synopsis, they knew it was going to change when I actually started writing the book. I like your “Write until you get it right.”