How to Write Story Beginnings

adult book book store bookcase

I’m trying to write a good solid beginning for my new book. I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to maintain the narrative momentum necessary to complete another book length marathon because what I do best is the short form: short stories, flash fiction, prose poems. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. However, I do have an idea for the setting of the story, the main character and the situation. But that’s all.

Here are the first few paragraphs of my work in progress. My fingers are crossed that I will make it to the end of the story.

“From the window all she could see was a thick expanse of white. She imagined that beyond the bleached park, bereft of native flora, but sprouting feral Norfolk Island pines, lay the immense Pacific Ocean, its agitated waves unravelling along the distant sand of the beach. A few metres beyond that she pictured the white tower and lantern of the Harbour Light, as pictured on the hotel’s website, silently but steadily showing the way.

It was early winter. The tourists had left, the rates were cheaper, and there wasn’t much to look forward to in this sleepy seaside town. Its residents – mostly retirees – were tucked up at home or on holidays in warmer climates. The thick fog that hung low for days on end and the bitter wind from the sea would disappear in its own time to uncover a totally different scene: seagulls skimming the shore, pelicans at the pier, an outdoor craft market, the intermittent feisty spurt of water from the blowhole, formed from basalt lava 260 million years ago, named “kiarama” by Aboriginals, place where the sea makes a noise.

On the jaunty semi-rural valley to the south were dark red cows, producers of butter fat and protein milk. This was a land of dairy-farming plenty, the place where the mountains touched the sea, leaving only the weather frustratingly beyond restraint.

Kirsten Craig, a writer of crime fiction under a more testosterone-fuelled name, kept standing by the window, as if by sheer force of will she could penetrate the confusing mist. She yearned for clarity, an uncomplicated, black or white, answer. She’d find what she needed: peaceful hotel, good food, long walks by the sea, lack of stress, early nights. She would resurrect her conscientious and work-focused persona and put out of her mind the foolishness that had led to her being in this small town, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home.”

According to ‘How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!’ by BookBub:

  1. Startle readers with the first line. …
  2. Begin at a life-changing moment. …
  3. Create intrigue about the characters. …
  4. Use a setting as the inciting incident. …
  5. Up the stakes within the first few pages. …
  6. Introduce something ominous right away. …
  7. Set the mood. …
  8. Make your characters sympathetic — and relatable — immediately.
  9. Draw in the reader with a strong voice
  10. Start at a moment of confusion
  11. Don’t get bogged down with exposition
  12. End the first chapter with a killer cliffhanger

Author Jerome Stern writes in ‘Making Shapely Fiction’:

‘In the first draft of a story, no rules apply. You write and write, ideas come, characters change, situations grow, dialogues take off, speeches become scenes, and surprises occur. … After this first draft exists, then you can bring to bear some of your critical faculties and see what you can see about your creation.’

‘The Art of Fiction’ author David Lodge asks:

‘When does a novel begin? The question is almost as difficult to answer as the question, when does the human embryo become a person? Certainly the creation of a novel rarely begins with the penning or typing of its first words. Most writers do some preliminary work, if it is only in their heads. Many prepare the ground carefully over weeks or months, making diagrams of the plot, compiling c.v.s for their characters, filling a notebook with ideas, settings, situations, jokes, to be drawn on in the process of composition. Every writer has his or her own way of working.

Hope you find this post useful. Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like to add about your own experience of writing a story beginning.

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How to Turn Towards Your Inner Critic

man wearing brown suit jacket mocking on white telephone

It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is.  If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …”  On and on it goes!

Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this.  It’s OK to be open to this.

You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself  during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation.  Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience.  Now,  redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out.  Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present.   Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes.  Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic.  Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.

 “Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.

The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it.  If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine.  It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like aeroplanes in the sky.  But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing.  You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.

You Are Not the Stories You Tell

woman reading book

Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’—it’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing.  I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.

Should You Plot Or Not?

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In detective fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my short stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them.  The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

“A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishmentwhen he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop   http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/plot2.html  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.

 

Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write:  If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.

So all we need is  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  A beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

What about you?  Do you plot or write organically?  I’d love to hear what works for you and what sends you straight to the Writers’ Block Corner.

Facts About The Creative Process

afterglow backlit beautiful crescent moon

At a literary event I heard someone say, “The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious.  Your brain will do the work.”

It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness.  For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure.  We have no distance from what is happening to us.  The only things we seem to be able to say are “having a great time”, “the weather is good”, “wish you were here”.  It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet.  We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way.  We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the  coast in the winter.

“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.  I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves.  We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs.  But this does not come any time soon.  It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction).  We need to keep picking through those scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something  we can shape into a narrative.  We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas.  But the ideas need time to percolate:  to slowly filter through.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Each morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite

them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

 

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi

Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999

Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.

As the author Vivian Gornick said, “The writers life is the pits.  You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.”  She paused and laughed.  “But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.”

What about you? Are you ready to answer the knock at the door?  

How to Deal With Rejection as a Writer

adult art conceptual dark

If you are a writer, rejections aren’t just inevitable, they are a way of life — no matter who you are. Unfortunately, dealing with rejection is part of becoming successful as a published author.  

It’s really hard to handle rejection, to keep a lid on crippling self-doubt and to keep going.

We can easily play down just how hard it is to write through fear.  Fear is made much louder and much larger by rejection.

Rejection feels like a kick in the gut. We have shared our writing and shared are deepest thoughts and so it hurts like hell when we are told it is not good enough.

Writing, of course, is subjective. It may only be one person’s opinion of our work. So we have to keep putting our writing out there in front of different readers, publishers or agents.

Tell yourself as often as you need that you’re not the first writer and won’t be the last to have had a book, a short story, or a poem turned down.

Here is a list of authors who have been treated almost as badly as you have been. It’s sure to make you feel heaps better. It comes from the American literary publisher Knopf’s Archives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas:

 

Jorge Luis Borges

‘utterly untranslatable’

Isaac Bashevis Singer

‘It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.’

Anais Nin

‘There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic.’

Jack Kerouac

‘His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.’

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

‘for your own sake do not publish this book.’

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘an irresponsible holiday story’

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

‘an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.’

Watership Down by Richard Adams

‘older children wouldn’t like it because its language was too difficult.’

On Sylvia Plath

‘There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.’

Crash by J. G Ballard

‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

‘This will set publishing back 25 years.’

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

‘Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.’

The Diary of Anne Frank

‘The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the “curiosity” level.’

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

(rejected 16 times, but found a publisher and went on to sell about 25 million copies)

‘ A long, dull novel about an artist.’

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

‘The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a “lady” or “gentleman” amongst them.’

Carrie by Stephen King

‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’

Catch — 22 by Joseph Heller

‘I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny — possibly even satire — but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.’

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

‘You’re welcome to le Carré — he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell

‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde

‘My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.’

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

‘… overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.’

So remember, ‘For writers, rejection is a way of life.’ – author, Erica Verrillo.

10 Ways to Practise Writing

photo of a woman thinking

Sometimes we sit at our desks to write and can’t think of anything to write about.  We face the blank page.  We sit there until blood pours from our foreheads, as one famous author was heard to say.

Making a list can be good.  It makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship with your life in all its richness.

10 ideas for writing practice:

  1. Begin with “I don’t remember”. If you get stumped, just repeat the words “I don’t remember” on the page again and keep going.
  2. Tell about sound as it arises. Be aware of sounds from all directions as they arise:  sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.  Notice any spaces between sounds.
  3. Tell me about last evening. Dinner, sitting on the couch, preparing for bed.  Be as detailed as you can.  Take your time to locate the specifics and relive your evening on the page.
  4. Tell me what boredom feels like.
  5. See in your mind a place you’ve always loved. Visualise the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  6. Write about “saying goodbye”. Tackle it any way you like.  Write about your marriage breakup, leaving home, the death of a loved one.
  7. What was your first job?
  8. Write about the most scared you’ve ever been.
  9. Write in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  10. Describe a parent or a child.

Some people have a jar full of words written on pieces of paper and select one piece of paper at random each day and write from that.  Others use a line of a poem to start them off.  Then every time they get stuck they rewrite that line and keep going.

Be honest.  Cut through the crap and get to the real heart of things.

Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist, writer and teacher, Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake says the solution for her came via haiku (short unrhymed Japanese poems capturing the essence of a moment).

 “For several years I wrote one haiku a day and then spent hours polishing those I had written on previous days.  This tiny step proved increasingly satisfying,” Gail Sher.

She said it gradually dawned on her that it was not the haiku but the “one per day.”  Without even knowing it, she had developed a “practice.”  Every day, no matter what, she wrote one haiku.  In her mind she became the person who writes “a haiku a day.”  And that was the beginning of knowing who she was.

Gail Sher suggests writing on the same subject every day for two weeks.

“Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing,” Gail Sher.

She writes in One Continuous Mistake that the Four Noble Truths for writers are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

So start coming up with your own list of ideas for practice writing.  Life happening around us is good grist-for-the-mill.