Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Begin

Every writer faces the blank page. If we have managed to finish at least one story or essay, we have learned one or two ways to begin the work. I recently had coffee with another writer who had worked primarily in the publicity/marketing side of the business, letting her own writing sit neglected in a file while she did other things. During our recent chat, she asked the big question. “How do I begin?” She knew what she wanted to write—the many stories she had collected over the years—but she couldn’t find a way into the mountain.

After a writer has written and published a number of stories, novels, articles, reviews, and more, we begin each project often without even thinking about it. But if I stop to consider the question, how to begin, I know I have several techniques that I use implicitly. Each project is different, fiction or nonfiction, short or long, humorous or serious, scholarly or more popular. Each characteristic will affect to some degree the beginning, but several techniques are applicable for almost every situation.

First, when I open to the first blank page I already have an idea of what I’m going to write. If it’s a
short story, I have been carrying around in my head the idea of the characters for perhaps a few days. I’ve been toying with an opening sentence, or a phrase that has stuck in my head. I sometimes write the opening sentence with pen and paper, to get a sense of the rhythm of the line and the story. I might tinker with it a bit, editing, rewriting, but I soon type it and go on from there. In the third Anita Ray, I knew I wanted the story to open with a scene about the monsoon and the threat to a particular person. I edited this opening several times but the original scene remained.

Second, the beginning of the work on subsequent days is also a challenge. I reread what I have written the day before, do light editing, and continue on. Some writers leave the final sentence of the day unfinished and use that to force (or inspire) themselves to continue. I haven’t used this technique and admit that it doesn’t appeal to me.

Third, if I am pushing myself to get started on something, usually nonfiction with a deadline, and I can’t come up with an opening line, I make a list of the ideas I want to cover, using short phrases or single words. I organize these and out of this process usually comes what I think of as the strongest aspect of what I want to say. Once I have discovered the idea of the sentence, I begin composing.

Fourth, fiction is a journey for both reader and writer. If I’m not confident how to begin, I pick a scene anywhere in the story and start writing that. I describe where the character is, what the setting looks like, who’s there and who’s talking or doing something. Out of this I find the first sentence.

Fifth, I keep a notebook of ideas and phrases or sentences I like, even if I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I will never use most of them, but I can go to that material and comb it for something that sparks my imagination and can serve as a first sentence.

Sixth, this suggestion comes after every other one has been tried. Every writer wants her opening to be as strong as she can make it. We edit and rewrite and polish the opening probably more than any other passage in the story. Sometimes the best opening is discovered halfway down the first or second page, when we’ve used the already chosen first sentence to get our brain turned on and start a flow of creativity.

In my first Mellingham mystery I struggled with the opening, and in the end wrote three opening chapters. When I realized what I’d done, I read until I found a sentence that seemed to shift and move forward. I amputated the mss at that point, deleting three and a half chapters and making the entire story tighter and tidier.

Seventh, if the story feels strong but the opening won't come, I pick up a book by a favorite writer and read the opening of several chapters. This gets me into a better frame of mind, I don't feel so stuck, and I'm relaxed reading the work of writers I love. In the end I will probably delete whatever I come up with, but the point is to start moving forward.

These and other suggestions will help writers get down the first words of their writing project, but no one should spend more time worrying about how to begin than beginning. Whatever we write for an opening can be reviewed and deleted or improved. The point is to begin and let the characters in the story live their lives on the page.


  1. Hi, Susan,

    Like you, I keep notebooks handy to jot down ideas and phrases. Very helpful. I also do a lot of rewriting. It's the only way to write quality work.

    1. New writers have to learn that "writing" is really "rewriting." It's work, and those of us who are fortunate to find a publisher know that. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very well expressed, Susan. Sounds so simple, so basic, when you set it down, doesn't it?

  3. Really interesting to know how you have gone about this. Not having much writing experience (my blog doesn't really count), I can't even imagine it. Mark, however, has so much fun with it. I think he should read this!

    1. The computer swallowed my first reply, so here we go again. I didn't do much with the nonfiction techniques, so perhaps he has something to add.