Out of the three basic elements of a story—character, plot, and setting—setting often turns into the neglected stepchild sweeping up ashes in the corner. And for good reason. It can get tedious to describe an imaginary place that you can see clearly in your mind’s eye, but the reader can’t. On the other hand, it’s sometimes tempting to use too much detail, bogging the reader down with unnecessary words that only add confusion to the story.
If you’ve never written a book before you probably have a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about how it’s done. Before I wrote my first book I thought writers were divided into two categories. The first was the Ernest Hemingway writer. I pictured these kinds of writers sitting down at an orderly desk and writing slow, thoughtful sentences that came out brilliant and precise. The second type of writer I imagined was the Jack Kerouac or Philip K. Dick kind of writer. These kinds of writers drank two pots of coffee, took a bottle of pills, and then stayed up all night and the whole next day ripping through their work of genius. At the end of three days they had a completed manuscript and it was a new order of art that no one had ever seen before.
So when I sat down to start my own book and my mind went blank and I felt like a moron and wrote my first line as, “It was the middle of the night and it was really dark,” I thought it was a sure sign that I just wasn’t cut out to be a writer.
But guess what? Most writers feel like that. Seriously, they do. You are not alone. What separates the amateurs from the “real” writers is the simple fact that the real writers just keep going. They don’t let that feeling-like-an-idiot, dumb-first-sentence phase stop them in their tracks. They chug right on through it.
The first page is the hardest part. Here’s how to push through:
No Matter What Keep Writing
That means, don’t stop to check the time, don’t stop to reread what you just wrote, don’t stop to tell yourself you’re an idiot. Just keep writing. If it helps, tell yourself you’re just going to do a couple of pages of stream-of-consciousness writing to see what comes out. After two or three pages you can think about pausing, but get those initial pages out first. Once you break through the beginning, the flow will come faster and get easier.
If you’re unsure of facts, or dates, or scenery—all of those little things writers like to research—put your question or concern in brackets so you can come back to it later. For example, if you’re writing a historical novel set in 15th century Italy and on your first page a man immediately adjust part of his clothing, but you’re not sure what to call the item of clothing being adjusted, make a note in brackets like this:
[check term for vest and scarf thing]
And then come back to it later. The key idea here is later. Right now, in this moment, you’re writing. Not researching. Your goal is to stay in the creative flow.
Your First Sentence Is Not Important
While it’s true that editors, literary agents, and publishers place a lot of importance on a book’s opening line, you’re not at that stage yet. You’re not going to contact any of the above if you don’t have a finished manuscript to show them, and you’re not going to get to the finished manuscript stage unless you start the damn thing. Getting hung up on crafting a perfect first sentence before you’ve even written one chapter has the power to block you for a very long time. Even if your first sentence is, “It was the middle of the night and it was really dark,” just keep pushing on from there. Who’s observing this dark night? Why is it so dark?
Let Your Characters Do What They Want
Our characters are just like the real people in our real lives—the minute they do something, one of our first reactions is to judge them for it. If our character is passive-aggressive, we might push them to be a little more assertive. If our character has issues with women, we might get offended since we identify as a feminist. If our character lives in rural Alabama in the 1950s we might have very definite ideas of how they should act and talk, according to our own preconceived notions.
Get it out of your head right now that you control your characters. You don’t. If you try to force them to do certain things, or act a certain way that is out of alignment with what they want to do, you’ll see it when you reread your rough draft. Their actions and words will feel stilted and forced. From that very first page, give them the freedom to show up in whatever way they choose.
Once you’ve experienced a few writing sessions and barreled through that first couple of pages, you’ll start to understand that writing is just like exercise. The first few minutes always suck. They just do. Your body and mind are warming up, falling into the rhythm. Just keep going, keep pushing through. Even if it seems impossible now, one day you really will be running a marathon.
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