I love this quote from Stephen King, whose thoughts on writing always strike a chord with me. Taking that first step is really intimidating sometimes. And opening lines are so important, we’re always – quite correctly – told. Here’s what he says about his process:
‘We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.
When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.’
I think this is a great approach, and it could be crucial in identifying the direction your story is going to take – not to mention its tone, style and impact.
But what if we don’t have weeks, months or years?
What if we want to get going now? Today? But the idea of that opening line is proving so intimidating, looming like a colossus of fear and judgement, that we’re put off even thinking about putting pen to paper? Maybe (my favourite word, with all its flexibility and potential) it’s better just to get something down, anything that makes sense, in order to board the story train and start it moving. And come back to the all-important opening once you’re editing and revising. That would be my approach, because I know how easily I can get stuck on just a single word, and worrying if it’s absolutely the best choice. So a monumental opening line has the power to stall me indefinitely. I’ve found it much more freeing and inspiring to take the ‘shitty first draft’ route and write a first line that might be bland, unfocused, predictable and lacking in artistic merit but at least it’s got me started. And that’s more important to me, at this stage, than focusing on quality.
Of course it’s important to spend time taking care with your words, choosing them thoughtfully, and mulling them over until the perfect one rises to the top of your mind. If it wasn’t, we’d all be firing stuff off left, right and centre, with utter ease and no angst. But in order to get started, I’m willing to write something really average, knowing I can come back to it and change it later – and make it much, much better! How does that feel, though, to actually set out to be average? Does it feel like the wrong intention? I really, truly think not. Because some words are better than no words, a start is better than a blank page, and if you open the door just a teeny crack, you’re on your way. You’ve managed to set aside the fear of judgement, the negative hooks that are keeping you pinned to the ground, and you’re starting to fly (and mixing your metaphors – but that’s ok too 😊) And to me, that’s worth a few – editable – dodgy opening sentences. Today’s ‘slightly iffy’ could be tomorrow’s ‘worth working on’ and eventually (next week? Next month? Next year?), ‘nailed it’.
And to go back to that original Stephen King quote – after saying, quite rightly, that the scariest moment is just before you start, he goes on to be a bit more reassuring: ‘After that, things can only get better.’