First Steps

A reader asked, “How do you start a book? I can be brimming with ideas, but the minute I try to write them out they vanish.”

How well I know! My mind teems with sensational plots and dashing figures and I sit down at my desk, tingling with anticipation and flexing fingers and hands like a concert pianist preparing to pound out a Tschaikovsky concerto. I open a new Word document and kablooey!  My mind turns as blank as the screen. Frustrating!

The solution? Write something, however nonsensical. I recall a summer writing class at a community college where we began each class period with a ten-minute writing exercise.  Most of the students dove right in, but a handful of us just sat, tapping our pencils and frowning while trying to will words to appear on the page.  The professor gave us a knowing smile and then offered what I consider the best advice for overcoming writer’s block.  “If you’re fresh out of ideas,” he told us, “take your pen and write down, ‘I can’t think of a thing to write, but the prof says we have to for ten minutes, so here goes.’ Write it over and over, if you have to. But write something. I guarantee the ideas will come.”

I think I only started three assignments with that sentence, and I never wrote it more than once. As my pen traveled across the page I’d think of something going on at home or at work, or an observation made on the way to class. One observation started a chain of events I didn’t expect. Every day I passed a burned-out mansion that, despite its placement on the national historic registry, had remained in ruins for over a year. My daily doodles became a call to action in the local newspaper. Eight people joined forces and were given a tour of the mansion. Pictures from that tour, shown on the news, revealed less damage than people originally thought. The result? Someone bought and restored the mansion to twice its former splendor, and I went on to write an article for the historical society newsletter. While I didn’t get paid, I did get published and gained both valuable writing experience and the satisfaction of taking part in preserving a local treasure. All from a classroom essay beginning with, “I can’t think of a thing to write. . .”

But to continue: You don’t have to write the book from start to finish. I often start in the middle, or wherever the action flows best. Aggravating as they can be sometimes, computers simplify writing as no typewriter ever could, allowing us to cut and paste, delete, insert and rearrange as we please–all without having to retype the entire manuscript each time we make a change! (I have to give that electric typewriter credit, however; I must have put a thousand reams of paper through it, and it was still working when I bought my computer!)

And once you get started? Don’t start with backstory! There is a time and place for it, but not at the beginning. Use adverbs sparingly. An editor at a conference I attended told us that, if she reached a page containing six or more adverbs, she stopped reading. Instead, choose a verb that vividly describes the character’s action. For example, replace ‘talked loudly’ with bellowed, roared, shouted, or thundered. ‘Ran swiftly’ should be dashed, streaked, tore, or sprinted. Avoid passive verbs where possible.

Also–and I was especially guilty of this–avoid verbosity at all costs. Why use thirty words when seven will do? I remember reading back over Warrior Queen of Ha-Ran-Fel (my first novel) after laying it aside for three months and wondering, “I don’t talk like this. Why am I writing it?”

Finally: Don’t try to write the finished product the first time through. I’ve lost count of how many ideas died while I searched for the “perfect” word. Refining and polishing take time. Focus on your main points. The rest will come as you go along.  If you’re like me, you automatically start each writing session revising previously-written material, and with each pass the details come more readily.

Pretty elementary stuff for most writers, but having been where this lady is, I would have appreciated these pointers sooner.  They definitely facilitated my second book (which should be released in January).  And if they help a fledgling writer over some rough spots, this post will have accomplished its purpose.

Above all, nurture and enjoy your creative gift!


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