If you’re a writer, I have no doubt you’ve stared at a blank computer screen slash typewriter paper slash notebook page in dismay.
You see the characters in your mind’s eye in ultimate detail. They’ve lived in your heart for weeks or months or even years. You’re positive you know which way they’ll jump in any situation and have a number of difficulties lined up for them.
You’ve developed the greatest plot known to (wo)man. You have a firm grasp on where to drive your protagonists, the antagonist’s background, the supporting characters. After weeks or months or even years of planning, you’re finally ready to get started on the most awesome. Novel. EVER.
And the white page laughs at you.
I’ll be honest, I can’t tell you how to start your novel. You have to get past that first page all by yourself. I know of no tips or tricks to jumpstart your muse into allowing the words to flow. We all have to struggle with that on our own.
What I can do is tell you not to worry about it.
I know. What good is that kind of advice? Sheesh! How can you not worry about it when your novel stalls before you can start it?
Over the years I’ve had my issues with starting a new project. It got much easier when I realized one important fact:
That first scene is going to suck anyway.
Ernest Hemingway would walk into his studio and plug away, spilling thousands of words onto paper. And most of them were crap.
It’s like starting your car in the winter. You jump in, hit the ignition, rev it until it’ll idle and jump out to scrape the windows while the engine warms. That first scene is you warming your writing engine to allow the smooth flow of words.
We’re told by editors and how-to books that the first scene should be action-oriented. It should have a hook to draw in the reader.
When you’re staring at that blank page, that instruction looms in your mind and blots out the story.
For me, writing is somewhat regimented — I outline the entire novel before writing. But that doesn’t mean I should sacrifice flexibility, and neither should you.
Flexibility in writing means I can move scenes about if they come too early or too late in my storyline. It means adding the occasional scene when I realize I need to focus on a new development that popped up during writing.
It means deleting the first scene!
Rather than focus on hooking the reader, write what you want. Describe the scene in intricate detail. Run your characters through whatever mundanity you desire. Then move on to the next scene.
Rinse and repeat.
Eventually you’ll have your first draft completed. Yay!
Now go back to that first scene. Cut and paste the the first line into a separate document. (You might actually have some good words there. You don’t want to lose them!)
Read your first scene with that line missing.
Is it an improvement?
If it isn’t, do the same for the entire first paragraph. Read it again.
Did that work?
If it didn’t, cut and paste the entire first scene into your other document. I know it hurts, but give it a try.
I tell ya, there hasn’t been a single book that I’ve written since 2005 where I haven’t deleted the first scene. In each instance, the book was much better.
And because I had those words in a file marked “Cuts,” I was able to mine them for other snippets throughout the novel. Nothing was lost (except the worst words.)
How do you deal with those pesky opening scenes? Are you one of the fortunate few who can sit down and lay the words out without qualm? Or have you struggled with the “blank page” syndrome? How did you overcome it?
As a reader, what plucks the harp string of your fancy when you see the first scene of a book? Do you have any suggestions for books that have started out so well that you were literally forced to read them? (This writer needs new reading material…)
Comment below and join the discussion!