In the Beginning: How We Start

By Brenda W. Clough

StartThe 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.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.

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In the Beginning: How We Start — 8 Comments

  1. Hurray for people who proudly stand up to say that they are winging it. (I may be just a little bitter – Nanowrimo is coming up, and once more I am surrounded by people who say how much better they write when they plan and how that means that everybody should plan more.)
    I start with a character in a Situation. And ask myself who they are, and how the hell they are in that place, and what it all means. And then I usually start writing up to that scene, and after that, who knows where it will go. At the end, I have a book.

  2. It is clearly a question of writing style, and makes no difference from the reader end. I can tell by reading DWJ’s novels that she did not outline or lay the work out in advance — and I was delighted when her editor confirmed my intuition. But the work itself, it makes no difference how you get there, as long as you do.
    Knitters know this. There are at least two major knitting styles (American drop and European pick) and many, many subvariants. It is transmitted, a meme — you mostly knit the way the person who taught you knits (and so all my pupils do the American drop). But nobody particularly cares. If the sweater turns out good and fits, the technique is unimportant.

  3. Sometimes it’s a line. Sometimes it’s a scene. Sometimes it’s a situation. Pretty much always there’s a character I want to follow around. The sad truth is that it varies, not only from writer to writer, but from story to story.

    By the way, Brenda: I learned to knit from a crafts book written by Rose Ingalls Wilder. Can I assume I do American Drop rather than European pick? And what on earth is the difference?

  4. Hey, you know thirty more ways than Kipling did! I hope they’re all still right…

    (Also, I am now going to google American Drop. Who knew there was more than one way to knit? Heretic!)

  5. For sure Chaz and everyone he knows uses the European Pick. I can’t describe it, but google for YouTube videos on American style knitting. Essentially, the working yarn hangs loose at the back. Everything depends on who RWL inherited her knitting style from. If a nice Swedish lady taught Ma Ingalls, then the entire family probably was doing the European Pick.

  6. I begin with an idea or two. I jot them down if they don’t have a logical opening, and poke at them to encourage them to sprout one.

    Then I write down the beginning and start the outline. Which must be written on a scene-to-scene level, or I have not wrestled the plot into submission; it might still die on me. You might call it a rough first draft.

    Then I write from it.

  7. Thanks, Brenda! I remember her telling me that she usually had a beginning and an end and a gleam of a scene in the middle, and that was pretty much it. She also didn’t like to talk about works in progress, which (in my experience) is common with intuitive authors. Just naming it drains out all of the energy.

    • I can talk about a scene or event AFTER it is written, no problem. Five minutes after it is written! But before? No. It is like probing a fetus before birth, fraught with peril even when undertaken by an expert.