Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

pond in a snowy wood

Of course something is wrong with your first draft

… I keep telling myself this, but it’s not entirely helping.

The new book is going well. Really it is. But I’ve got that itchy-all-over-in-my-brain feeling that writing the first draft of a new book gives me. It’s partly because it’s a weird business, splitting your time between two entirely different worlds – especially when one intrudes with a phonecall about your breakdown cover renewal just as someone’s telling you their deepest, darkest secret in the other. Very disconcerting.

So there’s that. And the urge to finish, finish, finish, finish, FINISH before I lose my marbles completely and start believing I am my main character (ah, the perils of the first person perspective).

But then there’s the fact that there are Major Things Wrong with what I’m writing. Of course there are. It’s a first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Actually, as first drafts go this one’s pretty good (for me, at any rate). But a good first draft is never going to be a good book. Well, not unless there’s really something very, very wrong with you (and I say that with no trace of jealousy at the very *idea* that someone could write a stunning first draft – if you can, please don’t tell me). On the plus side, even if there are people who can, most of us can’t and don’t. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the best writing is re-writing (as EB White apparently did) but rewriting is what makes a first draft into a good book (unless you’re weird and creepy, in which case go away or at least pretend you write problematic first drafts too).

I’m at that difficult point in a draft where I don’t know if the itchy feelings are so intense because I’ve made a mistake that I’d be better off going back and fixing now or if it’s just that I’m feeling resistant about something. I am a bit struck at the moment, so it could just be the ‘I don’t wanna! It’s too hard! I hate writing and I want chocolate and cake and probably alcohol’ thing.

It seems to me that being a writer means that you sometimes hate everything you love most about writing. It’s just how it is. The fact that you can’t help writing, even when you hate it, is what tells you that you love it more.  I think that’s one of the big differences between people who like to write and people who do it for a living: if you do it for a living, you have to admit that you love it and hate it simultaneously but there’s more love than hate so you’d better get on with your next page before you get miserable because you’re not writing and writing is the most wonderful (awful) thing ever <pause for breath>.

And that’s the other thing that itchy feeling is: that ‘love/hate, why do I do this to myself? I could have been a stockbroker, for Gawdsake!’ thing. (No, I couldn’t but all writers have delirious moments when they think anything must be better than writing… which is not to knock stockbrokers, or not entirely, but some of us can and some of us can’t be strockbrokers. I’m not sure any of us have to though, unlike with writing.)

If you make the hideously stupid career choice to write as at least part of how you make your living, it’s generally because you don’t feel like you can be happy otherwise. And, frankly, you won’t be happy quite a lot anyway. For most of us, there’s a huge amount of rejection even apart from the frustration and fury of writing itself. But there you go. In the midst of the awfulness of the first draft, as I gnash my teeth and consider wailing, I can’t wait to write the next bit. I’m just afraid that the itchy feeling is telling me it’s going to be rubbish… But I’m going to go and write it anyway.

Is anyone else in the same first-draft boat? Any recommendations (for chocolate and biscuits to try, if not for getting past it?)