Friday, January 28, 2011

Grace Burrowes on Beginnings

Beginnings of romance novels are supposed to be easier—less difficult—to write than ends or (cue ominous music) middles. There is a great deal of business to transact at the beginning of the book. The dramatis personae must strut, mince, waltz, thunder or crawl onto the stage; hero and heroine must Meet and perhaps even enjoy or suffer through their First Kiss; external conflicts must be strongly hinted at if they don’t get center stage; secondary characters and subplots have to get some mention; the requirements of setting must be appeased.

At the beginning of a book, the issue of what to write about is subsumed under all that busyness, and yet sometimes, even the beginning of a book eludes us. The first line won’t present itself. The first scene keeps developing a limp. The Meet has no chemistry. The hero and heroine have too much chemistry and all of it is bad. The secondary characters are too charming, witty, or intriguing to serve in their intended roles.

And sometimes, we get into those dark, miserable corners where no words come at all. We are beginning-less, and then we become very prone to endings.

When the beginnings won’t come, we fret that they’ll never come and our writing career is over. We polish and buff and read over old material until we’re no longer polishing, we’re sanding it down to something dull and boring. We consider our own big black moment—quitting.

I attended a panel discussion at a Georgia Romance Writer’s conference on the topic of “When the Words Won’t Come.” Four published authors all discussed very frankly what it’s like to be without any beginnings at all. The room was nowhere near full, almost as if the topic itself had the power to shut down our creativity.

In the course of the discussion though, one panelist lead us through the creation of a first sentence, one word at a time. It took better than an hour, while we listened to each writer explain what had robbed her of her beginnings, and how she recovered the gift of starting a book. Beginnings are fragile, it turns out. They are not easy at all. They take hope and courage and the ability to withstand significant anxiety about middles, ends, and more beginnings.

Beginnings can require that we have physical and mental health or financial stability. They can demand that we see the end even before we start. They can seize our joie de vivre and creativity and throttle them within an inch of their existence. I developed a new respect for beginnings at that panel discussion.

So the next time a single sentence pops into your head worth exploring, rejoice. The next time a scene occurs to you while you're folding the laundry, give thanks. The next time your secondary characters have the decency to politely hint they might enjoy having their own book, be grateful. If nothing else has come clear for me, it’s that a beginning--of a book, a career, a relationship, anything--must not be taken for granted, and is a terrible thing to waste.

20 comments:

  1. Woohoo, Grace, well said!!!

    Sometimes I feel so guilty about getting so excited about writing new stories and scenes for another book, when I'm supposed to be putting my heart and soul into the current work. But at other times, the well seems to have dried up for writing anything, and I have to remind myself when the muse is there--don't let it go!!! Write for all it's worth, and then go back to the current work in progress and have even more fun!

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  2. Yes, yes, yes! Well done, Grace! Bravo!
    It happened just yesterday. I was being silly when I spouted off the first line of a book and suddenly a whole plot developed. I started to ignore it and keep at my WIP, but it wouldn't leave me alone so I wrote the basic skeleton in my idea book. Now back to WIP!

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  3. Absolutely, Grace. Wonderful post! Another reason I've learned not to ignore the voices when they speak to me...they'll clam up and stop speaking to me! There's nothing worse than your characters ignoring you. Now as soon as they whisper or shout, I jot down what they've said and sketch out where the comment, sentence, or scene will lead to.

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  4. So true, Grace. When the little voices speak, we must listen....

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  5. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who feels as if every intriguing idea must be captured on paper before it evaporates back into the miasma of mundane responsibilities. I'm guessing the more respectfully we treat our new ideas, the more we pay attention to them, the more of them we get.The sentence I finished in the GRW workshop had to incubate for a year, but it's a finished MS now.

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  6. I like to keep a file with ideas and one of the things I store in there are first lines that seem like good hooks.

    Sometimes a base a story on teh title and the first line on that...then let it grow organically for a few chapters before I outline. Backwards, I know, but it works for me.

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  7. Thought=provoking post, Grace.

    Pantser that I am, the hardest thing for me is finding the beginning. It's as if I have to put lots and lots of scenes on paper and then arrange and rearrange them like dominoes in order to discover which pattern can be matched to the next one.

    Whether I actually succeed in finding the beginning--that's another question. :-)

    Only once has the beginning sentence come to me as The Beginning, and though I wrote the opening scene in little more than a day, it was months before I figured out how to put it together with what came next.

    Mine is not a writing process I would recommend to anyone.

    BTW Grace, I'd love to learn the panelist's strategy for creating the first sentence one word at a time.

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  8. I agree with the rest of ladies--well put. That muse can be one stubborn lady. She's moody and undpredictable but when she shows up...BAM. Sometimes my muse rears her head at three in the morning. I've decided to keep a notebook by my bed and write down these ideas from now on. Gotta grab 'em when I get 'em. Great post.

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  9. I have a file of beginnings, and one of these days I'm going to write all those books! Meanwhile, my characters keep coming up with good ways to start their stories. My problem with beginnings is doubting them - I'll come up with a perfectly good, lively start and then change it a million times until it's pounded flat. I almost always end up going back to the original line. You'd think Id learn!

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  10. Hi Grace - I have to confess that for me the first 1/3 of a book is MUCH tougher to write than the latter 2/3. I've written over 40 books and the pattern is the same for me. It just takes me a while to get everything how I want it, to set all the people, personalities and elements in place.... and then the rest just flows off my fingers much faster. Go figure?!

    Thanks for an interesting blog!!

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  11. I tend to write a beginning and then realize it's actually the end of the first chapter, and the end of the chapter should be the beginning. Weird, but it's happened to me several times. So I guess the lesson is just to start the book. The beginning will be there somewhere.

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  12. Grace, I may be the odd ball here but the beginning of a book is always the easiest part for me. It always seems to write itself. It's the middle that always stumps me and has me pulling my hair out!
    Amelia

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  13. Loved how you said this about beginnings. I have been severely humbled by them. It is a relief that I find everyone fights through this.

    Like you said, be grateful for those times when I get those small gifts of scenes, and one lines.

    I know I am. :)

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  14. Mary Margaret, she bushwhacked us. Told us to just write a word, any word, then about twenty minutes later to use that word as the first word of a phrase, then to make the phrase into a clause, the clause into a sentence. I got, "The last thing he needed was an intelligent wife," which I've mentioned before i this space. The finished book is about 95,000 words, but it all rests on those first nine words.

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  15. Catherine, I'm up to about thirty completed MS, and I'm all over the place. Sometimes the opening gallops away from the barn; sometimes, the ending gallops back to the barn, and soemtimes--envy me these times--the middle just knit itself together without much effort.

    I've also had the experience of writing the book, then lopping off the first scene. Then the first three scenes, then the first chapter, etc., until somewhere in chapter three, I excavate the first line. I had to write all the pre-story for my own edification, but geesh... it gets tiresome.

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  16. And Shana, I'm with you: Write the book. Analyze process, polish, rearrange, or make sacrifices to the goddess of chocolate later, but WRITE THE BOOK now.

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  17. Amelia, you do NOT get to be the oddball today. It's my day to blog so I get to be the oddball. When it's your turn, you can have the privilege--maybe. Somebody else is probably going to usurp the it. You know how these creatives types can be....

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  18. I wrote the book on oddball :)

    This is a beautiful post, Grace. Beginnings are hard. Especially when you like a LOT of suspense and your editor doesn't :) I'm revising a beginning now; two of them in fact. I just picked up a book called "Don't Murder Your Mystery" a great book on writing. The author gives examples of great first lines and why they worked. Then he takes those great lines and botches them with those writing pitfalls we have to be so dilligent to avoid. It's very interesting.

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  19. Sometimes writing just flows... sometimes not so much. I found you have to go for it when your cup runneth over, and hang on when the well goes dry. Great post!

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  20. Fabulous post, Grace! And, oh, how right you are. :}

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