Where to Begin?

Recently, a writer friend of mine told me that the opening line for one of my stories wasn’t really working for her. Like most negative feedback, it wasn’t easy to hear–but it will ultimately lead to a better story. Luckily, I wasn’t particularly attached to that opening line–it had already been changed several times:

  1. Shortly after I wrote my initial opening for the story, I knew it was a typical “throat-clearing” opener, in which I stalled while I figured out where I was really going to begin. Only my writer’s group ever saw that opening. That particular draft had a question next to the place I would actually open the story that said, “Start story here?” They agreed that I should.
  2. The next opening line stayed around for quite a while–perhaps a year? But I got feedback that it sounded too “modern” and gave the wrong impression of the character’s “voice.”
  3. The third incarnation of the opening line (which apparently wasn’t a charm ;)) no longer sounded modern, but perhaps too archaic, and was a little confusing to boot.

There’s always this old fall-back …

At first, I felt as though I was out of options (that’s probably actually never true in writing). And I felt a little sad that the opening line was causing me so much trouble, because opening lines used to come so naturally to me. In fact, they used to be the first glimpse of a story I would get. That hasn’t been my experience for several years … I think because I’ve tinkered with so many openings professionally, and read so much about the supreme importance of opening lines, that I no longer trust my first instinct for them. And now it seems that instinct has deserted me altogether.

This is a problem, since not having an opening line makes, well, opening a story daunting. I started with a not-so-great opening line for my Rapunzel novel because November had arrived, whether I liked it or not. In revisions, I gave it a better opening line. Now, I’m poised to begin my Dark Crystal novel, but I’m hung up on the opening line again, although my mind is swirling with images for the story itself that continue to come clearer and clearer to me. But without an opening line, I feel as if they’re all locked behind a gate I can’t open.

I know that’s not true. I can climb over the gate. I can bust it open. It may be messy, but at least I’ll be inside, and I can come back and fix it later.

My friend also offered some insight that makes me feel less daunted about the whole opening line conundrum, and which I think is good advice for any writer to follow, especially those who fill their brains with too much writing advice:

“Your opening … might be a victim of overthinking. It might be a problem of you trying to figure out what’s ‘right’ in writing, and not what’s right for your story. I think you need to figure out what the story needs, and not what the writing advice columnists need. Maybe the reason that opening lines had always come naturally to you is because that was before you spoiled your brain with too much writing advice.”

Indeed. Back when openings came easier to me, I was young enough that I felt I had plenty of “time” to become a successful writer. I wanted that, of course, but I didn’t feel like a failure for not having it yet. All I wanted to do was to tell that story, so I never put locks on any of the gates.

After letting it percolate for a bit, I do think I’ve arrived at a better opening for the story my friend read, and the story will be better for it. And I’ll come up with an opening for my Dark Crystal novel, too. I just have to be OK with accepting that it might not happen at the beginning.


3 Responses to Where to Begin?

  1. G says:

    When I hear David Lynch talking about his creative process, it’s so intuitive. I think he misses the mark sometimes, yeah, but I think you need intuition to attain artistic sublimity, which is where the juice is. Something makes you go “ooh, I feel/understand that”, but you can’t necessarily analyse the feeling/understanding cos the author couldn’t, either: they were operating on something beyond planned-out story logic and “good” practices/techniques.

    You talk about reading loads of writing advice; in the martial arts, it’s quite a common refrain that one “learns technique with the aim of eventually forgetting it”; in other words, it seeps into you until you don’t consciously think of it any more, and then you can respond spontaneously to an immediate, unpredictable situation without becoming locked into the classical lines of movement that you trained with. A beginner just responds naturally because they have no preformed idea of how to respond; a beginner or intermediate trips over themselves all the time, trying to “apply” technique; a master responds naturally but with a conditioned nature.

    Some people never, ever attain mastery, and I’m not at all sure that the 10,000 hour rule is the entire explanation for that. I’ve had lighting blots of inspiration ten years ago that allowed me to write good stuff, yet I can still feel totally arid today–I’ve practised more, but I’m in a different frame of mind. Maybe it’s about understanding the difference between practise and creation.

    Penny for your thoughts: that second “practise”–in British English–it’s an activity, but it’s still a noun, same as “creation”… Yet I still don’t want to use the C-form, cos that makes me think of legal/doctor’s practice or a specific technique/procedure.

    We should just drop it and use Cs all the time, jeez-o…

    • I think your comparison between martial arts and writing is apt. It reminds me of people who often protest against this or that writing rule by noting that XYZ FAMOUS AUTHOR does this thing *all the time*. But the difference is that XYZ FAMOUS AUTHOR is NOT a beginner, and XYZ probably fully understands the rule AND why s/he broke it.

      I think anyone who reads a lot has an “instinct” for how a story is told. Writing advice can make that instinct more conscious and refine it; but then, you’re right, it must once more be risen to the level of intuition — except that this time, it’s informed intuition.

      What is the difference between practise and creation, in your opinion?

  2. G says:

    Haha, “lightning blots”–oh dear…

    Practise is technical: drills, repetitive combos, kata; creation is relatively freeform sparring or actual fighting.

    In writing, it’s harder to see the distinction cos we’re past the stage of school English exercises. We use language all day, every day in a way that martial artists don’t fight all day, every day. I think it comes down to attitude more than activity. When I’m writing without any sense of pressure and enjoying it, I would compare it to when you suddenly come out with a great, original quip during a conversation. You couldn’t have done it on purpose, with ponderous intention and deliberation. The right attitude at the right moment can bring out something much funnier than if you had two hours to sit and try to think of something funny. Something just comes out, at exactly the right time, that is more than a mere regurgitation of an apt joke, reference or meme.

    When the occasion has a sense of pressure, deliberation and design, like writing a story you have ideas and hopes for, it can cramp one’s style. I find it takes something akin to psychic channelling to free up the ol’ mojo. I pace and mutter a lot; it’s quite a bodily, whole-being thing.

    I haven’t done any martial arts for a long time, but I get a similar feeling when walking through crowds. I feel like I’m honing my body awareness and perception of others’ movements and intentions when I try to move as smoothly through crowds as possible (without looking unnatural/odd about it, I should add; I’m not wearing a ninja costume at these times, or doing forward rolls). It’s a game; it’s practice, but it’s also creative. One time, I was doing this and an old lady suddenly stumbled and would’ve faceplanted, but I was immediately ready to catch her. I would say that kind of instant, appropriate responsiveness means you’re elevating practice to the level of creativity. If it’s only practice, you think, “crikey, what do I do now!?” when surprised.

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