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More Writing Ideas and Inspirations (8)
Where Do I Begin?
Many writers claim that the hardest part of writing is getting started - the idea, that first line, the beginning. Many years ago, I remember reading a useful bit of advice about beginnings:
Take the first paragraph and delete it.
Okay, and why would I want to do that? Obvious - because when we start a new piece of writing, a lot of us take a little while to 'get into' the mode of the story, and the first few sentences (often the first paragraph) is likely to be surplus to requirements. I tried it out for myself and found that whoever uttered those immortal words was actually right. In several of my stories, my first paragraph was either irrelevant, or said pretty much the same thing as the second paragraph.
Another reason for ditching that first block is that stories need to start at the most interesting part. If you're rambling on about where your character grew up, how he met his first girlfriend and what size spanner he uses down at 'Gary's Grotty Garage' five days a week, you have to be sure that these details are vital to the story you're trying to tell. If they're not, let 'em go.
The thing that hooks your readers has to be right in there at the start, otherwise you've lost them. Here's the beginning of one of my unfinished stories that kind of makes that same point:
See, if I start off by saying there was a gun on the sideboard, or a carving knife sticking out of the table, or a baseball bat in the corner, then you know for sure that sooner or later somebody's going to get shot, or stabbed, or beaten to death. That's how it works - you plant that seed there and allow it to simmer away on the back burner. But I'm not telling that part of the story, so you'll just have to wait and see what happens...
The reader has to be interested in the story, in what's going to happen, how it will affect the characters. But how do you get that beginning in the first place? Where's the inspiration?
The example above began with me just rambling on about those magical elements I thought a story needed for it to work, and wondering at the same time if my narrator might be thinking along the same lines. Turns out he was. So did I have to scrap my first paragraph? No - that was the first paragraph and it's hardly changed since the day I wrote it. Of course, I won't know if it's exactly right until I get to that other important paragraph - the last one, but that's another story
While I was in hospital last year having my gall bladder whipped out, I took note of some of the other patients in my ward. One man was strapped into a metal cage of some sort, apparently unable to move, bend or even turn his head. I watched his relatives as they sat there making small talk and wondered how the experience of seeing their loved one in this helpless condition affected them.
When I got home again, this vague idea of the helpless patient was running through my head and I pictured a woman and her lonely vigil. But the voice that came out was the guy in the bed, And he wasn't happy...
Being a rational man, it had of course occurred to him that perhaps the operation hadn't gone as planned and that, as a consequence of this, he had, at some point in the proceedings, actually died. This possibility was borne out by the fact of his wife Shirley's odd behaving at his bedside. That she had deigned to appear at the hospital at all was, Paul thought, mildly astonishing, but the tears, the wounded-fawn series of expressions and the relentless moaning were character traits he'd never have imagined she possessed. Moreover, he reasoned, it was entirely illogical for her to be remotely distressed at his condition, given that since their marriage (such a short time ago), she had endeavoured to bring an end to his life several times in order that she might delight in the abundance of his life insurance.
What emerged wasn't what I had started out thinking about, but that didn't matter, because I'd found the thing that got my attention - that this guy's wife was trying to kill him. (It occurred to me along the way that maybe he was already dead and simply observing the scene from some heavenly arena, but I dismissed that as way too obvious).
The First Line
One of the things I do a lot, is to try and come up with a good first line for both of us (me and my reader). Ideally, it'll be one that asks a question, poses a problem, or gives a hint of what's to come:
- I didn’t really expect her to be dead.
- It begins as a means of ridding himself of everything that reminds him of Carla and her influence.
- She found the note on the occasional table in the hall, partially hidden by the oval paperweight that Oliver always entrusted with messages for his wife.
- There's no way he can know who'll answer the door, but since here he is with a gun in his hand doing a pretty good impression of a guy planning to do harm, it's a fair bet that if anyone other than Bonzo appears, he's going to have to shoot them too.
- It had never occurred to her to look for someone else in the event of his death.
- It's funny the stuff you hide away, don't talk about, don't think about.
- Three days after she told him she didn't want to see him anymore, she called.
- She never intended to become a recluse.
Just for the record, of the 8 beginnings above, 3 have been published, 2 are currently sitting in slush piles and 3 are unfinished. I'm not going to tell you which is which, but if you're really keen to know, answers are at the bottom of the page.
These sorts of first lines often start in the same way, with similar phrases:
I didn't expect (him to be there / to find the knife / the police to catch me so soon)
Three days after (the wedding / the house burned down / she trashed his car)
It was strange to (meet him like this / feel that old yearning for blood / see them together)
She'd never imagined (it would be so bad / he could do this to her / they'd simply accept her story)
Death and Other Themes
Like a lot of us, I tend to gravitate towards familiar themes, stuff I've explored many times before, so I'll often be thinking about lovely old death, murder, jealousy, loneliness, loss, revenge and so on. All wonderfully interesting of course, but not exactly the nice, bourgeois family stories your mum used to read in 'The People's Friend'. So does that mean you can't write about good people, happy homes, loving couples? Of course you can! So long as someone gets dumped, murdered, taken for a ride or thrown to the lions.
Okay, I'm kidding, but think about the stories you like to read. After all, if it interests you, it'll interest other people, right? Then again, maybe you should study your intended audience and write what you think they want to read. But then again (again), if it doesn't interest you as a writer, is there any point even thinking about it in the first place? No.
So getting back to the point of this thing (getting started), let's think about 'death' for a moment and see where it takes us:
Death - dead, body, bury, coffin, funeral, mourners, family
And the first thing that comes into my head is:
Frank had lain down on the dining room table before, but in the past he'd always been either sound asleep or dead drunk. Now he was just dead.
Revenge - retribution, feud, getting your own back, getting even
And this time the first thing I think of is:
She didn't want to hurt him - at least, not physically...
And one more:
Loneliness - isolation, remote, unloved, ignored, old
Which gives us:
Staring at his one plate, his one fork, his one bottle of Bud, Arnold realised what he had to do.
If this all sounds like a lot of hokum, feel free to stop reading now (that's a joke, by the way), but writing is all about ideas, imagination and creativity, and spending too much time thinking about what we're going to write about is just a waste. Inspiration is what gets us started, so go plant that inspiration and cultivate it, watch it grow and -
Actually, scrap that, don't watch it grow, that's just another excuse not to write. Go write.
Answers to the Published / Unfinished / Slush Pile
- I didn’t really expect her...(from 'Collecting for Evie' - published)
- It begins as a means...(from 'A Version Therapy' - unfinished)
- She found the note...(from 'The Cleaner' - published)
- There's no way...(from 'The Ice-Cream Man Cometh' - unfinished)
- It had never occurred to her...(from 'Other Men' - slush pile)
- It's funny the stuff you hide... (from 'Pete' unfinished)
- Three days after she told him...(from ‘Girlfriend, Interrupted' - slush pile)
- She never intended...(from 'The Hermit' - published)