Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Wednesdays (?): Beginnings Are Hard

It's ironic, considering what this post is about, that I have:

a) been procrastinating about writing it and:

b) have rewritten it eight times already.

The earlier versions of this post were unnecessarily ornate, featuring yours truly in typical, long-winded tale-spinning (and over-hyphenating) mode.  It was adequate writing, but it was writing in a burying the lede sort of way.  That's why I chopped everything back to the bare bones and am trying again for this, the ninth and, hopefully, final attempt.


I have a lot of ideas.  They bang around in my head like pinballs on a hot streak and clutter up my brain.  Some of the ideas are free-floating flashes:  Animal people birthed from a giant egg, a elderly master swordsman who can't die, a world where creative energy is gradually fading away to nothing. That kind of thing.  These ideas are fast and smooth.  They don't stick to anything and they don't grow.

Other ideas are slower and stickier.  As they bounce around in my head, they link up with other ideas.  Hey!  This character and this setting go together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Heey!!  That guy that I thought was just a random person sitting on a stoop actually used to work for the evil galactic mega corporation.  Heey!!!  What if the character is able to get her hands on the sedative from earlier in the book to knock out the bad guy at the climax?

Sometimes, either the slower, stickier ideas accrete into a large enough narrative mass to become a story, or one of the free-floating ideas is bouncing around so ferociously that I need to write about it before it tears my brain apart.

The logical thing, when presented with either of these two scenarios, is to sit down at the magic computer box and write the ideas out of my head.  In certain, very rare circumstances, that works out just fine.  In most other circumstances, however, I find that the harsh, white glow from my computer screen is the antiseptic that kills the slurry of bacteria that is my creative juices.

Aside #1:  Ew.
Aside #2:  Get one of those tinted screen things.

The other big reason the momentum dies whenever I sit down to try and write is because of something that was drummed into my head when I was a wee lad.  Perhaps you've heard some variation of this thing.  If you haven't, it goes like this:

"There is a windowless room deep within the labyrinthine corridors of every publishing house. It is lit by a naked bulb, whose sickly yellow light illuminates the wan and emaciated face of an intern.  The intern's desk is hemmed in on all sides by teetering stacks of manuscripts stuffed into manila envelopes and coated with dust.  Also, the desk probably wobbles.

"The intern repeats the same process all day every day, opening an envelope and reading the pages that it contains.  If the intern is not grabbed by the first few paragraphs of a particular manuscript--nay, if they are not grabbed by the very first sentence of a manuscript--they push the brick of unread pages into a chute that opens out onto the incinerator, where the words--and the writer's dreams--are consigned to flame."

Because of that, there is a tremendous pressure for me to write the perfect first line.  Otherwise the story is no good.  Otherwise I can't progress.  Otherwise I'm wasting the reader's time and my time and the time of a hypothetical intern that I made up out of whole cloth, who probably has a computer and reads email attachments and just, I don't know, deletes them if they're not up to snuff.

This is a mindset that I am gradually (but slowly) transitioning out of.  It helps that I have written more things in the past five years than I have in the entire rest of my misbegotten existence.  This means that, for the first time, I have actual personal and practical experience to draw upon.  What that experience has taught me is this:

Waiting until I have the perfect opening before I write something is pointless, because, in 100% of cases, I have gone back and edited my stories so that the original opening sections are either changed beyond all recognition or no longer exist.

Remember what I said about ideas sticking together to make a coherent narrative?  If my story is alive and moving forward with any kind of momentum, that process continues happening as I continue writing.  A random throwaway character (or so I thought!) joins the hero and becomes a prominent member of the party.  Background details that I created just for color turn out to be Chekov's Guns that my subconscious has loaded and left laying about for me to fire.  An idea in the shower causes me to pull a sudden 180, turning the person that I thought was going to be the main villain into the hero's best friend.

I never really know what a given story is going to look like until I'm almost at the end, even if it's a story that I have scripted out ahead of time.  Once I reach the end, I realize, when I go back and look at the beginning, that the beginning is wrong.  I had different ideas then.  I was young and naive and not aware of all the twists and turns that my characters and I would face.  There were, inevitably, some things in the beginning that didn't pay off because the story concept evolved, or there were places where I needed to expand on the new things I wrote later that actually did pay off.

And that's when I close my eyes, hold my breath, and mash the delete key until whole paragraphs go away.

Then I start over, using all of my new knowledge and foresight to create a beginning that will serve as the opening for the actual book I wrote.  And yeah, I try and write it in such a way that it grips the heart of my poor, benighted, hypothetical intern; because I do have to sell this story at some point, after all.

The short and the (very) long of it is this:  I (or you) can wait for the perfect beginning, but it's a waste of time.  All I'm doing is postponing the important part of writing, which is actually getting the words on the page.  So I should just not worry about it and write.  Once I write a draft and figure out what the story actually is, then I can go back and sculpt it into that perfect assortment of sentences.

A little preachy, but there you go.

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