Beginning Again

I’m starting work on my new novel called The Traitor King. It is fourth in my Crosspointe series and the beginning of it is eluding me.

This isn’t actually unusual. I often start in the wrong spot and have to add chapters before in order to get to the correct beginning. Oddly, I never start too early. I always shoot past the starting line. That’s because I can’t see it.

A student of mine was telling me today he wants to write a novel but doesn’t know where to begin. Ah! I said. I know that problem. Here’s the solution. Forget about finding the real beginning. Just start. You’ll find out later if that was the right beginning and you can always go back and fix it. I believe that that is decent advice.

Oh, Doctor, heal thyself. Because I’m teetering on the edge of starting, trying to figure out where I want to start and can’t seem to just get going. I keep thinking I need to sort out this bit, or remember that piece of possibly crucial information from a previous book. But the truth is, I need to stop dithering and jump in.

So what’s really stopping me? Part of it is the terror of the white page. Part of it is being unsure of the road–I can see a short way up it, but after that, there’s a heavy, wet fog and I don’t really know where the plot is going to go or even end up. This is worrisome. I like knowing my destination. It isn’t necessary, mind you, to making a beginning, but it does make me feel better (which is odd since a lot of my books don’t end up where I think they will).

I’m wondering about other writers out there. What do you have to have to get started? Do you always know where you’re going? Do you ever know where you’re going?

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  1. 1. cedunkley

    So far, in the rough drafts of various novels I’ve written I’ve never found myself starting too early. Like you, if the opening I envisioned turns out not to be what I’ll end up with, I always end up moving backwards and starting earlier.

    The WIP I’m about to return to (and hope to someday get published) has had a few different beginnings. The first one opened up an hour before a terrible event. The second version opened up a week prior to this event. The current incarnation opens up a couple of months prior to the terrible event.

    One reason for this is because the journey of the character who commits this terrible act has become central to the story.

    I do have one story where I did start too early, now that I think about it. The revised version moved the opening forward by about half a day.

    Overall, though, I usually start crafting a story around an event. Then I’ll write a first draft where I learn who was there and what happened. After that, I’ll look at the story and figure out how to really tell it from the personal view of multiple POV characters. While the initial event remains, the story I rebuild around it gets reshaped and dominated by the characters I’ve discovered along the way.

  2. 2. Elizabeth Barrette

    I don’t always know where I’m going. My soul runs faster than my brain, and my brain runs faster than my hands can type, so I often get stories in fragments that aren’t necessarily in order.

    I deal with it by writing down whatever ideas for a story I have, as I get them. At first it can be really chaotic, but after I get the first rush on paper, usually it slows down a bit. Then I look at what I have and start putting it in chronological order. Next I connect the dots, scene to scene. Usually I wind up with kind of a rough outline of the most crucial points in the story — the “linchpins” that hold it all together.

    Sometimes I get the opening of a story first; sometimes I get the ending first and kind of backtrack from there. This approach works for me, at least better than the other things I’ve tried.

    A blank page doesn’t stand a chance against me. If I have high-pressure creativity I blast right through it. If I’m just sitting down and deciding to write something, or working on an assignment, my first step is usually to hit it with a brick: write down the title, reference books I’m planning to use, section headers, etc. Blank pages seem to have very low surface tension; break it with anything and it’s gone. On the rare occasions when that doesn’t work, I do a few math problems. This invariably causes my muse to wake up screaming “ZOMGWTFBBQ!” and get back to work. (I can be too wrecked to write, but that’s about what it takes to get the creative engine really out of gear.)

    I actually enjoy the discovery part of writing. I’m delighted when little bits of things early on blossom into important story infrastructure later. It makes writing an adventure. If I can see *too* clearly I’m apt to get bored and not finish, unless the story is really riveting.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I’m a huge planner, so I know where the story begins and ends, more or less.

    But I still have false starts. Most often it’s because, while I know where the main plot starts and leads to, I don’t know the details of it.

    Example: In my current story, Hagai is a cowardly bookworm who gets wrapped up in a bigger adventure. In the first try, he owned a bookshop, but I couldn’t think of a good reason to get him to leave it. In the second, he lived in a monastery/library he didn’t like, but he came out too strong and sullen. In the third, I had Hagai’s character and place set (he worked in his aunt’s bookshop), but 700 words into it I found I couldn’t logically get him in the adventure from the specific scene I started him, so I changed it again.

    Point is, each time, I got closer and closer to the actual details I used. Each time, either I hadn’t found the character yet, or the logic wasn’t working (I couldn’t get the protag from plot point A to point B logically). Once I found the beginning, the rest flowed… mostly.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I’ve re-written about half of the opening part of each of the Onyx Court novels. Never used to have that problem, but it seems to be creeping up on me . . . .

  5. 5. glenda larke

    Starting is not the problem. I have that so clear in my mind…the end too. But, oh, the middle!

    You are right though. It is unusual to start too late. Many writers initially start too soon (including me) and end up tossing that supposedly wonderful opening page.

  6. 6. Matthew Milson

    I always know where I am going with a story…until I sit down to actually write it. Then I get completely lost again :)

  7. 7. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    cedunkley: I just had the epiphany last night that I was planning on starting too late. Again. i don’t want to back up and start earlier. I’m currently arguing with myself about the wisdom of it. Writing is a very self-divisive job, isn’t it?

    Elizabeth: I take lots of notes on scenes and interview characters and all that, but when it comes down to it, I can’t do what you do and write out scenes out of order. I am terribly linear as a writer. I do like the discovery of writing, I just like to know a bit more about the road before I start. I’d like to know that eventually I *will* end up somewhere. Grrrr!

    Adam: I giggled at cowardly bookworm. And I agree completely.

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Marie: It does seem to be a creeping problem, doesn’t it? Reminds me of the woman in the yellow wallpaper . . . .

    Glenda: Weirdly enough, it’s the middle that I know best in this book. How bizarre is that?

    Matthew: I pretend to myself to know what I’m doing so that my confidence doesn’t flag, but I’m pretty much like you. It’s when I *can’t* seem to pretend that I have problems. Like now.

  9. 9. Missy Sawmiller

    I just jump in and pray… especially since most of my stories start with a scene in my head before I ever have an outline. And I don’t write congruently despite how hard I try. It’s that whole ‘middle’ thing I seem to have issues with. :)

    Can’t wait for Traitor King!! Heck – can’t wait to pick up The Turning Tide.

  10. 10. Alyx Dellamonica

    Generally, all I need is a freewrite. Sometimes–and this sounds shallow, but seems to be true at this stage of my life–a little caffeine makes all the difference.

  11. 11. Kelly McCullough

    Opening for me are easy, and closings are mostly easy too, though there’s always an extra twist or two I didn’t see coming. It’s the middle third that kills me every time. Though it’s not where I tend to have problems, I’ve always loved Tim Powers’ advice about starting. He has a hard time committing himself to the great sprawling task that is a book, and so has a routine that goes a bit like this:

    I’m not going to start the book today, but I am going to write a set of practice sentences to help me along the way a day or two from now when I do decide to start. Opens document. Yep, ten practice sentences that could open this book that I’m eventually going start writing. Writes ten sentences. Now, I’m going to take the three best of these and expand them out to paragraph length. It’s still an exercise, or I wouldn’t be doing three, now would I? Does that. I think I’ll start the book next week, and it sure would be nice to have a sort of sample page showing one way the book might open, as an exercise, of course. Why don’t I take the best of these and expand it again. Does that. Ha, I’ve fooled you again, self. This really is the beginning of the book. Now you’re committed. Chuckles evilly about how easy it was to fool old Tim once again, then goes on writing.

  12. 12. Tara Maya

    I have one story on which I’ve written about 50,000 words — alas, all failed attempts at Chapter One. Occassionally I stagger as far as Chapter Two, but it just peters out after that and I’m stuck again. Is this a question of not knowing where to start with the book, or something else?

  13. 13. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Missy: got a feeling that’s what I’m going to do. Look out below!

    Alyx: I tried the freewriting thing. Still couldn’t land on anything. Dammit. But what doesn’t work this time, will work next tie, right?

    Kelly: that’s really fun. I decided to just do it and start somewhere. So I did. We’ll see. But amazing how easy it is sometimes to fool, self, isn’t it? Distract it with something shiny and then just run past and write!

  14. 14. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Tara: I am no sure. It could be a few things, possibly more than I’m thinking of. If it was me I would think this. I have a problem where is if the first chapter doesn’t feel perfect, then I can’t move forward (it doesn’t have to be the first chapter–it can be any chapter that isn’t working that can pull me to a stop). Part of that is because I’m a linear writer and I need the foundation to be solid before I can go on.

    Another problem I have is sometimes my subconscious/lizard brain knows better than my conscious mind that something isn’t working and the fracture in what isn’t working is so problematical that my lizard brain refuses to go forward until that problem is sorted out. That’s because the foundation is too shaky to hold the story and my lizard brain knows that things will collapse.

    Sometimes it’s a problem where part of me recognizes that I”m starting in the wrong spot. Or a problem with knowing that the story can’t sustain itself if I go on (lacks depth or complexity or whatever).

    And finally, sometimes it’s just a wall of fear I need to break through and just write and get to the other side.

  15. 15. Jessica De Milo

    To get started for me is different for short stories than for novels. Short stories need only a tense moment. Novels need, if not a final destination, a series of clearly defined problems, preferably with a logical progression from one to the other. However, I’ve had several short stories turn into novel-length projects. So who knows.

  16. 16. Natalie Hatch

    Diana I find I start writing but on the first edit after I’ve finished the first draft I will eliminate up to 7 chapters at the beginning because I’ve mainly written backstory. I don’t know why I do this, but it happens every time even if I plot the story out in its entirety. The first couple of chapters lets me get into my characters heads and then the story takes off from there. Don’t know how to break this habit. Do you have any suggestions?

  17. 17. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Natalie: I decided this deserved a longer reply and discussion, so hop over to http://difrancis.livejournal.com/ for more.

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Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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