This is a guest post from Eric Olsen, co-author of We Wanted To Be Writers. I personally feel this topic is important as I spent many years reading books on writing before I actually got on with the writing itself! If you like this article, you might also like the How To Write A Novel mini-course – click here for more details.
Here are some suggestions to get your first words on the page.
A young writer recently asked me: “How do you start?” She told me that after spending months doing research for a novel, after filling several file folders with notes, clippings, and random thoughts, she’d yet to start the thing. But she was hardly short on ideas. “So,” she asked, “How do you start?”
A great question. I ask myself the same thing more or less every day. Or, variously, how to re-start, as in get unstuck…
There may be as many reasons for not starting as there are writers facing a persistently blank page, but I think for a lot of us, the hang-up is anxiety about setting off on the wrong path. Maybe you have an idea for a story, maybe it’s a great idea, and before you actually start to write that story, the possibilities are endless and the idea remains great. But once you start, once you set out on a particular path with particular characters and situations, suddenly the possibilities aren’t so endless. Now you’ve chosen a path, and what if you’ve set off on the wrong path?
So how can you get past all that?
You don't have to start at the beginning
One approach is to simply not worry about “starting,” as in starting at the beginning. In We Wanted to Be Writers, John Irving (The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, and many others) tells us he starts a novel by writing the last line first. “I work my way backward from the end of the novel,” he says, “which is the first thing I know, to what the first chapter should be. By the time I actually write the first sentence, I have a virtual road map of the whole novel — either in notes or in my head.”
I’ve never tried this, as I just don’t work that way, and Irving himself says he sincerely doubts his method would work for anyone else. But it might be a worth a try…
Novelist Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, Carmelo, and many other books) takes another approach. She doesn’t start at the beginning or the end. “I don’t write in a linear fashion,” she tells us. “I write what I call ‘buttons.’ If I’m writing a story, rather than going beginning to end, I just write scenes and don’t worry about what connects them. Maybe dialogue … all out of sequence. I imagine I’m going to die in eight hours, so what part of this story do I need to write today that I haven’t written because it’s going to be published posthumously? If I’m in a funk and tired about this book, I’ll write about someone who’s tired. I just use it as a place to go off from, then write it and rework it until it’s beautiful, and then I have this little button. And my job is done. And then the next day I work on another button, and then I put them together and start to see patterns.”
If you have an idea for a story or novel, perhaps buried somewhere in those sheaves of notes, especially if you’re a compulsive researcher like me, and you use research to put off doing what you need to do, which is to start, try writing about a character who might or might not end up being in that story; this is exploration, after all, path-finding, but not starting out on a particular path, a little like Sandra’s buttons.
Give the character a name. Describe the character. Then have the character doing something. A person doing something in space and time — cooking an egg, flying to Mars, visiting an art gallery, or whatever — is inherently interesting, and certainly more so than a character just sitting around thinking; the thinking can come later, if it must. Once you have a character doing something, this might lead to that character doing something else…
Better yet, start with two characters doing something. Give them both names and describe both of them. If you have two characters, then they can interact and talk to one another.
One of our teachers at Iowa 30-plus years ago, the late novelist Vance Bourjaily (The End of My Life, The Violated, and many others) once told our class that good dialogue is a conflict that reveals character, desire, and what’s at stake. He also added that the bad guy should get the better lines. Action and dialogue are ways to get into a character’s head, and, indeed your own head, and thus into finding the story. You might end up tossing what you’ve written, but if it gets you going, so what? Remember, this is about exploration at this point.
Another teacher suggested having a conversation with your characters as a way of finding out who they are and what they want, as a way of finding your story. I was working on a novel at the time and it wasn’t going anywhere and I was losing steam. I didn’t need to start, but I certainly needed a kick in the ass.
So I took my teacher’s advice. I asked each character how he or she ended up in this situation and what each wanted, and I got answers. I set it up as a series of dialogues, and I was amazed at how the characters began to take on new life and speak for themselves when I gave them the opportunity to tell me what they wanted and what the story should be.
It was an engaging, liberating exercise as I was relieved of the burden of worrying how each character might fit into the plot; how they might fit didn’t matter at that point. The exercise gave me new ideas about each character, new insights into who they were and what they wanted and, indeed, about how the story should unfold. Now I do this routinely. Of course, in our culture, carrying on conversations with imaginary characters usually leads to the court-ordered administration of psychoactive medications, but if you’re found out, just say you’re a writer and it should be OK.
How do you start writing when you actually put pen to paper?
We Wanted to be Writers, a blend of interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with nearly 30 graduates and teachers who were at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-70s. They include John Irving, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Michelle Huneven, Joe Haldeman, Jennie Fields, Marvin Bell, and many others.
Find out more or buy the book at WeWantedToBeWriters.com
Top image: Flickr CC Seeminglee