February 7, 2018

The small ways to launch a story

A friend asked me a while ago, “How do you write? Where do you start?”

He’d had an idea for a story bouncing around for a while, and just hadn’t managed to start it yet. He was paralysed with a fear I know a lot of writers have had, that you might start it and do it wrong.

His question was one I’ve heard before, because in times of hesitation or uncertainty I’ve asked myself the same thing. Where do I start? I have a number of stories I just can’t begin because of various reasons: unclear voice; unclear direction; unclear characters. I’ve had these stories in my head for years, and they stay there because I don’t know how to answer that question. And I don’t know where to start because I haven’t tried to start them. I mean, really start them: turn the key and rev the engine and see where it takes me.

Because, truth be told, everything I’ve ever finished began with momentum. The question of where to start was never asked. One project – my ongoing opus that I’ve been writing and rewriting for over thirteen years – began with one word. Fog, which became an acronym for an entire universe’s worth of possibilities. Since then, beginning from that three letter word, I estimate I’ve written over 500,000 words in redrafts and different versions.

So having that spark helps. But more than that, starting small goes a hell of a long way. One word can become half a million. The important thing, which half a million successful writers will tell you, though, is to start. To keep writing. Use the two very valuable tools available to most writers today – the delete key and save as option – and use the latter freely, saving a ridiculous number of drafts. Doing this eases the pressure, and you become less precious, more willing to take risks and commit to uncertainties.

Writing is a a form of time travel. Your character can travel down the street and turn a corner. But 50 days or pages down the track, you realise they shouldn’t have turned that corner, damn it. They should have just kept on walking. There was nothing for them around that corner. You have the power to turn them around. And their path becomes different. It’s all in your hands.

It can be forgotten sometimes when you’re right in the thick of a story and its plot and action, but – and it might sound strange or so stupidly obvious – but you are in fact the writer of it all. Never forget that. Writers do. They forget it all the time. The stories we tell are larger than ourselves, but they do come from us. And all it takes is for us to start, undauntedly.

I didn’t tell my friend any of this, though. All of this is afterthought. Instead, I told him what I’ve realised nearly all of my characters do when I start writing them. When I begin, I find them sitting, and then, for some reason, they get up. Why they get up relates to the story and the challenge they are about to face, but beneath that lies the lesson: without that change of states, from sitting to action, there would literally be no story.

The same is true of writing. Without getting up and beginning, you will have nothing to show in a month, and wish you’d started a month earlier. The important thing is you take that first step, strike that first key. Turn the key and rev that engine. More often than not, you’ll be surprised where that story will take you.

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