Liftoff

For the last two years I’ve been teaching a writing workshop in a women’s prison. They’re a well-read group, but most of them don’t have much writing experience, and they consistently struggle with starting stories. They tend to get bogged down in detail or background information and just can’t get the damn thing off the ground. More seasoned writers seem to struggle with this, too. I’ve taken a lot of writing classes where I read a lot of stories that didn’t actually start until page three or four. In one workshop, the professor took our stories and drew a huge line across the page with a red felt pen when she got bored and stopped reading. In a different workshop, the professor put the first page of each story up on the screen and the class voted on whether or not they’d keep reading. If they voted “No,” you had to revise and resubmit until you got a “Yes.” Some people never made it past that first page.

Last time we talked about the struggles of getting started, one of my prison students blurted out what everyone else was probably wondering: “Why the hell is this so hard?”

The thing is, you rarely fantasize about the beginning of a story. When you’re kicking ideas around in your head and even once you’re working on a first draft, you’re preoccupied with those big cinematic moments that made you want to write the book in the first place. At least, that’s usually my experience. But beginnings, when done well,  can become the most iconic moments in a story-telling franchise. Consider Harry Potter: few people are ever going to forget those owls landing on the Dursley house or the Hogwarts letters shooting out of the chimney. Consider The Hobbit: thirteen dwarves barnstorming the Shire is one for the ages. Consider Macbeth: the witches on the heath is one of the most recognizable scenes in Shakespeare, even though it may have actually been written by Middleton and it’s only a handful of lines. Point is, the impact of a good beginning can’t be underestimated.

I’ve been thinking about this question of beginnings a lot in the last two weeks as I’ve been writing the first chapter of a new project for 1000 words of summer. Starting a story is, like outlining, one of the challenges of writing fiction which I particularly enjoy. So when my students were wrestling with their stories’ first pages and paragraphs, I asked them the question I always ask myself when I first put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: Why does this story start here? You can’t start a story right if you can’t answer that question. Why this day instead of any other day? What happens that’s out of the ordinary? What’s going to get the reader interested in finding out what happens next? Most good beginnings indicate an interruption of the norm, whether it’s dwarves banging down the door or something more mundane. But something has to happen to get your MC started on their journey, whether it’s a journey toward a spiritual awakening or a divorce or the end of the world.

What happens with a lot of my students (and a lot of people in writing workshops) is that they get hung up on world-building. They have such a clear vision of a place or a person that they want to fill the first pages of their story with rich description, so the reader has a perfectly immersive experience–like the opening sequence of a television show that plunges you right into the aesthetic of the thing. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite work with printed words; a little description is good, so your reader knows where they are in the world, but nothing will lose their interest faster than adjective soup. It’s much easier to get hooked on a story that starts with action, even a story that starts in media res–because people and particularly readers are naturally curious. They want to ask questions and learn the answers as they go, and they’ll keep reading until they get them, if the story has gotten them hooked.

A lot of writers forget that you can world-build as you go, instead of all at once. Starting with action doesn’t mean you’ve forfeited your only opportunity to describe the people and places that populate your story. No reader is ever going to picture everything exactly the same way the writer does, and I think the impulse to over-describe comes from an (understandable) desire to close that gap. However, good writing checks that impulse and instead seeks to close the gap between action and description, and gives the reader sensory and aesthetic detail as it becomes relevant to the events of the story–for instance, describing the way a character walks when he first walks into the room, or the way the front door groans when someone is trying to sneak back into the house after curfew without making a sound. This works in fiction because this is how it works in the real world; rarely do you walk into a new room and stop to digest every detail before you greet anybody or grab a drink or ask where to hang your coat. Instead, you absorb details of your surroundings as you move the through the world and as they grab your attention. Thus also to good writing: it takes notice of relevant detail, dispenses with the rest, and gets on with the story.

Of course, every beginning is different. But I do think it’s universally true that if you want a reader to keep turning pages, you have to convince them that things are going to happen in the many pages to come. In a world with more books than any one person could ever hope to read, you can’t afford to dither. Make a bold first move. These first pages are urgent. Shove your reader and your characters right out the door. They’ll follow where you lead. The story’s already started.

M

Best-Laid Plans

Every time I send a new draft to my agent–or my committee, if we’re talking academia–there follows a strange fallow period where I simply don’t know what to do with myself. After weeks and months of a familiar circadian rhythm hugely influenced by how much work I want or need to get done each day, suddenly finding myself with idle hands can be so disorienting that I forget to enjoy it, forget to bask in the luxury of free time. I don’t want to perpetuate the (grievously mistaken) impression that academics don’t work during the summer–because the truth is that they use the summer to catch up on all the work they didn’t get done during the year because they had classes to teach and papers to grade and conferences to attend and so on and so forth–but even though I’m spending the summer at the Folger’s Paleography Institute and working on my dissertation prospectus and crafting syllabuses for teaching next year, these first few weeks have felt uncommonly freeAfter months working around the clock, I finished grading final papers and essays, sent a new draft of a new book to my agent, and passed my comprehensive exam on May 21. Waking up the next day when it was all over felt like finding myself shipwrecked on a tropical key with only a scrambled recollection of how I got there. It felt like paradise–until the island fever set in.

I am trying hard to mitigate my workaholic tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that without something to work on, I get restless. My agent is in the process of reading my latest draft, and because I don’t want us to be working at cross purposes, there’s not much I can do right now to work on my current book project. Fortunately, because I’ve never figured out how to turn off “plot bunnies,” I usually have a long list of ideas waiting in the wings for a moment just like this one–when my current manuscript is out of my reach but my brain needs something to do. So: let the plotting begin.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fanatical outliner; because I like to write in a more-or-less linear manner and because I hate staring at a blank page wondering, What next? I never start a first draft until I have a pretty solid outline to work with. I’ve heard many a protest that this sucks all the creativity out of the process, and I respectfully disagree–planning ahead lets you engage in two completely different types of creativity but (here’s the crucial part) not at the same time. Every writer is different, but personally I find it difficult to produce good prose and find the right pacing and “set the stage,” as it were, if I don’t know where the story’s going. Much easier to focus on the shape and texture and tension of a scene if the question isn’t what happens but how it happens. So, finding the narrative is Step 1. It’s hard to build a house without a blueprint.

This seems to be how many newish writers get stuck. I hear a lot of variations of, “I’ve realized I need to outline but I don’t know where to start. How do you outline your projects?” The assumption often seems to be that one can approach outlining like assembling IKEA furniture–that’s there’s a simple how-to manual which, if interpreted correctly, will eventually yield a reasonably stable bookcase (or, in this case, book). Speaking only for me, this is pretty much the opposite of how outlining happens. Despite the fastidious, buzzwordy connotations of a word like “outline,” this part of the process is messy and unpredictable and wildly experimental. So when people ask how I outline, it’s difficult to know how to answer. But because that’s the phase I’m in right now, at least until I get my other MS back from my agent, I figured I’d try to describe it.

Every story starts as just an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere–a painting or a newspaper article or a riff in a song which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up–and suddenly the imagination is off like an improv troupe with a prompt, trying out different personalities and scenarios, snatching and discarding different ideas until something sticks, something clicks, and the pieces begin to fall into place. Inspiration tends to ambush me, rather than tapping me politely on the shoulder when I don’t have anything more important to attend to, so most embryonic story ideas get scribbled down wherever they strike. Then I mostly leave them alone, picking them up to play with in spare moments on the train or at the gym or when I just need a break from whatever project is consuming most of my attention at the moment. Little by little, pieces fall into place. I collect ideas for characters and scenes and settings and try out different plot points as they occur to me. This often takes months, precisely because it’s a process that can’t be forced. It can, however, be helped along a little.

In the early stages, when nothing’s set in stone, a book is more about the feeling than it is about the facts, and what I refer to as “outlining” includes time spent splashing around in the aesthetic space of the story–which might mean making pinboards or making playlists or tracking down other books in the same genre to give myself a sense of what’s already out there or starting to put together a research bibliography. Inevitably I find myself discovering tidbits of character or culture that are simply too good to lose and slowly filling in gaps in that loose outline as I go. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, actually, because it’s purely a time to play. But eventually something a little less amorphous emerges. Casts of characters solidify and their backstories gather detail. A skeletal plot begins to take shape.

This is when I turn to notecards. When I have a strong enough sense of “how the story goes” I open FinalDraft and start dropping notecards in a storyboard. (The freeware version of FinalDraft is CeltX, which as far as I know has most of the same features I’m talking about here. But you could also do this with old-fashioned paper index cards.) What I like about outlining this way is that it lets me play with structure while retaining flexibility–I can shuffle scenes around until I find the order that makes the most sense. These scene cards are pretty scant on detail, just a sentence or two to indicate what has to happen in the scene. For instance, here are the first few from my original outline of Villains:

IWWVoutline

This is pretty sparse, but eventually it turned into something that looks more like this, fleshed out by character and atmosphere and everything else that makes a book a book. However, it takes a long time to get from idea to outline to first draft, and along the way there’s a lot of time spent trying to figure out how the pieces of the story fit together, how to get from one notecard to the next when you know there’s something missing in between. That’s probably the best analogy for it–it’s like solving a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle which will eventually give you the road map you need to start writing the first draft. It’s vital work, but unlike the actual writing of prose or revision of prose already written, it’s not really something I can schedule or quantify or plan ahead. I just have to let it happen. Sometimes it’s frustrating as hell, especially when I’m excited to get started on something but I know I’m not ready yet and the muse is taking her damn time, unmoved by all my earnest pandering to her whims. But it’s also some of the most fun you’ll ever have as a writer, precisely because it is (ironically) unstructured. It’s a time to explore and discover, and there are few more exciting moments than the “EUREKA” moment of solving a plot problem or uncovering the secret of what makes a character tick. Do that for a few weeks or a few months and eventually–voilà–you have something that’s starting to look like a story.

I haven’t decided what I’m working on next. I have three different projects which are partly outlined and starting to solidify. And because I know I’ll be getting that other MS back from my agent soon enough, there’s no sense going too far down the rabbit hole with anything new just yet. But idle hands are dangerous, and an idle mind is worse. So while I’m in MS limbo, I’m going to get out the jigsaw puzzles, and have some fun, and see if I can’t make some pieces fit.

M


Header photo by Rick Payette.