By Brenda W. Clough
The pupils at the workshop I was teaching, such dewy-eyed and youthful sprouts! Their tender and innocent question was, how do you begin a story? My first and accurate response was (per Rudyard Kipling) that there are nine and ninety ways of writing tribal lays. True!
But unhelpful, of course. So then I had to tell them how I really do it: I sit down and write the first sentence. No outline, no character list, no plot notes, no creation of setting, magic systems, political organization, or pantheon of deities — nada. I just begin. All that stuff comes later, sometimes way, way later. I am a dessert-first kind of girl.
Mysteriously this first sentence mostly does not change; I can look back at my works and see that the first sentence is always the baseline for the entire work. I always tell my pupils that it is OK to write something on the understanding that it will be heavily rewritten later on. But somehow — for me — my first sentence does not alter. Everything else, yes, but not that.
I do have an ending to write towards. But, since I never ever get there, why go to any trouble about it? I have long since given up worrying about a destination that is so sure to change beyond recognition. So I recycle the same conclusion from book to book to keep me going, and it works fine. For your information, this one-size-fits-all ending is, “…and then they all died. The end.” Feel free to borrow it.
Well, you say, that’s not very helpful either. Clearly you are insane. No normal writer writes this way. Actually my pupils did not say this, but I could see it, in their doe-like and glazed eyes. But remember– there are nine and ninety ways, and all of them are correct. Would Rudyard Kipling lie to us? My way works for me. And I was delighted to learn, on a Diana Wynn Jones panel at Capclave, that the great DWJ wrote the same way. Her American editor, Sharyn November, reports that she was a totally intuitive writer, who never touched an outline, a magic system, or a diagram. Forcing her to submit three chapters and an outline — even asking her what the book was about — immediately aborted the work, and so her editor prudently gave up doing that.
So I call upon my fellow BVC denizens. How do you do it? How do you begin?
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.