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Category: About writing

The First Few Pages

Getting Started: the first few pages

There’s an awful lot of advice on the internet and in craft-of-writing books, from revered writers and craft teachers about getting the first few pages right.

And it’s pretty much all true.

But what they often forget to say is this: the first few pages of your final book are almost never the first few pages of your first draft.

If you sweat madly over your first pages, trying desperately to get it right — or worse, perfect — when all you’ve got is five pages (or fewer) of your story, it’s probably the surest way to kill your story enthusiasm. You’re likely never to get beyond a five page manuscript.

The thing is, some lucky writers get the first line, and the first few pages perfect from the very start; the rest of us have to work much harder. For me, the start of the book almost always comes hard, and I’m almost always half way through the story before I work out what I need the opening pages to achieve. Sometimes the beginning is the last thing I write. Once I know my character’s journey and how it ends, I know what I need to set up at the start.

So if you’re just starting on your first novel, or if you’re a pantser,  try just diving in to your story from wherever it starts in your mind. Know that this beginning probably won’t end up as the final opening pages — but you haven’t written enough of the story yet to know what the  start should be doing. Just write madly while your enthusiasm for the story idea is driving you, until you run out of steam. And know that this is just a first draft, so anything goes. 

You need to be free to write whatever comes to you, without thinking about the market, or craft-of-writing advice, or what readers might think. Forget the rules, just plunge in to the story. 

This is your honeymoon phase — there’s just you and your muse and characters playing under a luscious golden dreaming moon.

Writing is rewriting. 

I used to read a lot of first manuscripts (I don’t now — no time) and one thing that popped up again and again is that often, for the first three chapters or so, the writer was writing their way into the story world of the character, learning about the characters, creating the world of the story, learning and describing backstory, and falling in love with the story. But their real story actually started in chapter four.

This is NOT a bad thing — you need to do all that work in finding out who your characters are, and where the story takes place, and play with various possibilities. So go ahead and write them.

Once your story is spinning and you have the plot taking off, and you know who your people are, you have something to work with — like a potter who’s dug the clay, taken out all the stones, then processed it until it’s smooth and a rough shape has emerged. You have your raw material.

Then you can decide where the best place to start might be. A suggestion often made is to start at the point of change for the main character — where something happens to cause him or her to take action of some kind, for their life to have to change.

Think about your story and work out what you need to set up. Considering some of the following:

a) What’s the best, most effective and interesting way readers could meet your main character(s)? 

b) What do you want to show about your character(s)? What first impression do you want readers to get of them?

c) What story questions or intrigue do you want to plant in your reader’s mind?

So don’t sweat the first few pages  or that brilliant first line — just write. Some writers refer to their early draft as the discovery draft. That comes first. Crafting a brilliant opening comes later, in some case, much later.

Training Your Muse

A lot of people think the muse strikes randomly, and you just have to wait for her (aka inspiration) to appear.

While ideas can pop out of the ether to inspire you at odd times, if you’re serious about writing, you can’t just wait for that to happen.

I talked last week about Dorothea Brande and her method of training the muse. I outline my version of this process here on my website.  But I often return to the book.

Why We (I) Need to Do It.
Dorothea talks about the two sides of any writer. The first is the adult, who’s discriminating, temperate and just, the artisan, the workman, and the critic (rather than the artist.) This part of any writer must work with or through the emotional and childlike second side. These two sides need to work in balance, and if any side gets too far out of hand, there will be bad work, or no work at all. (Brande page38-39)

Her process helps writers get these two sides into balance, and in her book she talks about splitting those two aspects apart “for consideration and training.” (Here and on my website I outline the shortened version, but I highly recommend her book.)

The process I’ll talk here about involves two short writing periods of 15 minutes each. Of course if you’re working on a manuscript, you will want to write more than that, but this is the training part of writing — getting your muse to turn up on command. Really, it’s about forming a writing habit.

1) Morning Writing
First, you write for 15 minutes soon after you wake up — preferably while you’re still in a semi-dream state. Go to the loo by all means, maybe even grab a cuppa if you must, but don’t have your shower, read email or the newspaper, don’t even talk to anyone — try not to interact with the world until after you’ve written. Then aim is to try to hang on to that semi-dream state, and write from that. This is the time to play, to explore, to write without caring, to write and not look back.

What to write about?
Anything. Write down your dreams if you recall them, write about your thoughts, a stream-of-consciousness exercise, try to evoke a moment from the day before, using as many of the five senses as you can. It doesn’t matter what you write — it matters that you write, and don’t limit yourself. If you’re on a roll, of course you can write more, but you need to write in this free-spirited way for the first 15 minutes. You’re training your muse, remember.

2) Appointment to write
Once you’ve finished your morning writing, think about your plans for the day and make a time for the second part of your writing. This needs to fit in around your daily activities — think ahead and decide when you’ll make a 15 minute slot for writing. This appointment-to-write is a crucial part of the training-the-muse process. It doesn’t have to be the same time every day — fit it in around what you’re doing. But make the appointment in advance. It doesn’t work if you suddenly think, “Oh, I have 15 minutes free, I’ll do it now.”

You must keep this appointment — every single time. This is the part where you’re teaching your muse to show up. No excuses, no argument — and no delays. No “I’ll wait until after dinner,” no “I can’t write in public places,” no “I’m not in the mood for writing just now,” and no “I don’t know what to write,” no, “I’ll do it later.”

You’ve made your appointment — KEEP IT!
All those usual excuses you come up with about why you can’t write just now — nope, you’ve made a commitment to write at this time, and hey, it’s only 15 minutes. You can do this. It’s hard, I know — but the eventual payoff is worth it. 

I’ve been known to pull over on the freeway when my appointment hit, and write for 15 minutes in my car. Another time I’d planned to meet friends for lunch and intended to do my 15 minutes before we were due to meet. I was sitting in my car scribbling madly when one of my friends arrived early. She knocked on the window. “Coming in? she asked.
“I’m writing,” I said. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.” She’s a writer — she understood.

 What to write about?
Again, it doesn’t really matter — work on your current wip (work-in-progress). Write a shred of a scene, a piece of dialogue, something you want to try out, thoughts in your character’s head — that’s up to you. Start a short story, continue the free-form writing you did that morning.

What’s so important about keeping this appointment to write?
Keeping the appointment to write will really help you defeat a procrastination habit as well. I don’t know about you, but my subconscious can act like a worm confronted with a hook, wriggling madly and always coming up with reasons why I can’t write now, why it would be so much better later. It’s a process of endless putting-off-the-writing. When I catch myself doing that, I always go back to Dorothea — the morning pages and the appointment to write, and after a couple of weeks I’m not only back on track and writing steadily, but often, the magic will happen (see last week’s post)and scenes will start to come to me in a dream-like state. And those scenes are always good ones.

When you first start to do this, your writing will probably be a bit clunky — that’s all right. It’s your muse dragging her feet a bit. She — and you— will get used to it, and after a week or two of your daily morning writing and your daily appointment to write, the words will start to flow — on demand — and isn’t that what we need to do?

“Doing Dorothea”  helps get your writer’s brain in balance—the child and the adult. The morning child remembers how to play and be spontaneous and emotional and lively, and the adult keeps the appointment to write. And when the two work together, magic happens. 

 

The muse

A gift from the muse can be a two edged sword — wonderful and dangerous.

Some writers start with a scene in their head — a gift from the muse — and no idea what it’s about or where it will go from there. They will write the scene down and push on, trying to work out what the story is about. This can work brilliantly, but it can also be a source of much angst. A writer I know often starts this way, then gets a few chapters in and wails, “I’m stuck!”

And that’s where the real work of writing starts — working out what your story is about, and how to make it work. This is the problem for most  “pantsers” — people who write (or plot) by the seat of their pants — or as some people call it “writing the discovery draft”, where the writer writes the full draft to discover what the story is about.

I, too, often start with a gift from the muse. There are days or nights, when I’m drifting off to sleep or slowly waking in the morning in a semi-dream state, and I will find a scene unrolling in my head, almost like a movie, with dialogue and all. I’ve learned to write those scenes down and to this end keep a large notebook by my bed. It can end up as three or four A4 pages or more, and will often contain  long dialogue exchanges.

The times I haven’t written them down — usually because it was such a brilliant idea that I knew I wouldn’t forget it — it’s gone by the next day, even within an hour or two. All that’s left is the conviction of its brilliance and the frustration with myself for not writing it down at the time. 

Sometimes what comes is a scene or dialogue exchange from the characters in the book I’m working on, and sometimes it’s a scene completely out of the blue, where I have no idea what it’s about or who these people might be. This last doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it has usually sparked a book or even a series.

And some of the scenes or dialogue exchanges I scribbled down in my notebook are almost identical to the final edited scenes in the books. Here are some examples:

a) The ballroom scene in Gallant Waif. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it comes toward the end — it’s the heroine’s black moment, and it’s a scene that people always mention when they talk to me about that book. I started with that scene in mind, and worked backward to decide where the actual book would start.

b) The scene in The Perfect Rake where Prudence first meets Gideon, and thinks him someone else. That book sparked a series.

c) The scene where Harry in His Captive Lady, sees Nell riding on the back of a wagon in the rain, and gives her his hat.

d) The scene in To Catch a Bride where Rafe finally captures Ayisha. All I knew from that initial scene was that was here was a very cool, uptight, elegant regency rake teamed with a spitting, fighting, furious little guttersnipe. And the combination made me smile.

e) The scene in Bride By Mistake where a young soldier finds a young girl being attacked and saves her. And then doesn’t know what to do with her, because he can’t leave a thirteen year old to fend for herself in a war zone.

f) The scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby first meets Lady Beatrice. The scene was about a girl (who I knew was a good person) climbing through a window to find something to steal —she was desperate and this was her first time — and instead of some small object to steal she found an aristocratic old lady in a desperate situation. This sparked a series.

There are more — in writing this I’ve realised how many times this has happened — but you don’t want to read a list of my books and how the muse helped me with each. These posts are about your writing and how to get started — and keep moving. 

A gift from the muse is not a random accident — you can train the muse to appear on command. Or at least to turn up regularly. 

The thing is, you don’t have to be wildly lucky to get these gifts from your muse  — I believe any write can develop a state where it happens regularly, but you have to work at it. It’s partly about allowing yourself to dream, and partly about developing a habit, and in this I’m going to encourage you to follow the advice of Dorothea Brande — or Julia Cameron if she’s your preference. I go with Dorothea because she was first, and I found her book early in my writing career. 

Dorothea Brande was a writer and writing teacher in New York in the 1930’s. She wrote a slender little volume called Becoming a Writer — and it’s still in print today, which shows you how relevant her advice still is. If you’re interested in the quick and easy version of how I “follow Dorothea” there’s an article on my website you can read.

Dorothea Brande talks about training the muse to perform on command, and lest you imagine its some magical mystical airy-fairy way approach, the tone of her book reminds me a little of a dog trainer’s instructions. ;)  She’s very down to earth. But, she says, follow her method and the magic will happen. And it does.  

Try the method I outline on this page, and see how  you will gradually get better at tuning into your muse. And eventually having her turn up at your command. I’ll talk some more about this  process next week.