“It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.”
- John Steinbeck, in a letter to Edith Ronald Mirrielees.
I think we all share those feelings to some extent. Sometimes something happens that inspires an opening sentence or the start of a poem. But unfortunately, that’s a rare experience. Most of the time that first scene is elusive. I have the general plot line for my book or story, but I don’t know exactly how I want to begin. And so I procrastinate. I’m not alone in this. Billy Collins has a humorous poem, “Advice to Writers,” in which he advises writers to wash walls and all sorts of other cleaning projects before even starting to write. He claims everything must be spotless first.
I have wanted to start my next book for quite some time – months and months, in fact. I know the plot and story line and where I want to go with it. I know my murderer’s reasoning for committing the dire deed, but I don’t have his name yet. My next step is to create a biography of him in some detail. It will be his story, his thoughts, feelings, and disappointments. In other words, it will give me insight into what leads him to murder.
Next I will create short biographies of new characters in my small town of Portage Falls or add more to the short biographies of returning characters if they’re going to play a more important part in this book.
All my characters have a simple one page character profile listing name, description, occupation, family, hobbies & interests, mannerisms and a line for anything else. Some of these profiles are very limited if they have a very minor role.
This stage of beginning a book is the easiest part for me, maybe because I don’t have to worry about perfect prose or the exact words I need to use. They are only for my use. The only drawback to this method is sometimes I start to feel sorry for my murderers – not because of what they end up doing, but for what has happened in their life to lead them to this decision. I guess it’s because I never make my murderer a cold-blooded psycho case.
As for my victims, their character is never well-developed unless it’s to show what a nasty person they are so no one feels sorry when they meet their end. That’s not totally true. I have had a few victims I developed more and felt sorry about their death, but in most cases the victims haven’t been anyone a reader would care much about.
And it’s not only writing that has me procrastinating, although it happened with every paper I had to write in college. Many years ago I used my S&H green stamps to get an artist’s kit with oil paints, brushes and canvases. It took me a whole year to actually touch a brush with paint to a bare canvas. It never got much better, either. I had ideas, but even with a rough sketch of what I wanted to paint, putting that first brush stroke on a blank canvas was as hard for me then as it is for me now putting those first words on a blank piece of paper.
Do you have trouble starting something new?
How do you overcome this?