Writing (Perfect) Beginnings

Last week I talked a bit about how I wanted to be a perfect writer when I first seriously started trying to get published.

That resulted in excessively long timelines to get anything done and probably much more stress than I ever wanted or needed. But I’m not talking about being a perfect writer today (or for that matter, trying to be one).

No. Instead, I’m talking about Perfect Beginnings and trying to create them. Why? Because I’m sure many of you have read the same books I have. You know the ones – they talk about how critically important it is to have an engaging first sentence/paragraph/scene/chapter?

So, having read that bit of advice and because the first sentence is…well first, I set out to create the best first sentence ever. The problem was, I hadn’t written any other part of the story. Sure, I had plotted most of it. Sure, I had character sketches of most of the characters.

So, I wrote the first sentence over and over again. Every time I thought I had it and tried writing the second sentence I realized it still wasn’t right. And when I got past the second sentence, usually the third proved troublesome.

It took me a long time (two years – I’m a very slow learner) to realize the problem wasn’t necessarily me nor was it the story. The problem was I was writing a line for a story I still didn’t really understand. When I finally realized the problem (and it was by accident, let me tell you), I smacked myself thoroughly in the head and moved on.

By the time I got to the end of the book, I knew exactly what I wanted to say at the beginning. And the beautiful thing was, I could write it then and know it fit.

Was it perfect? Heck no, but it was a great start to the story.

It also made me rethink my obsession with writing everything linearly. I now know I can write scenes out-of-order providing I keep a good handle on the story.

How about you? Do you have any horror stories about first line/first paragraph/first whatever? I’d love to hear about them.


Milestone Unlocked – Sidebar post

Yesterday I hit another major milestone in my life. I wrote and passed my Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification Exam.

What does that have to do with writing?

Not much…and at the same time, everything.

The PMP is important to my ongoing (non-writing) career. It will help pay the bills in ways my writing currently isn’t. It was also taking all of my focus away from everything else.

Also, if you haven’t discovered this yet, being able to schedule and organize (which are components of the PMP) are kind of important in everything you do, including your writing.

To celebrate, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in quite a while – Read a book.


Being a (Perfect) Writer

There was a point in my life where I made a conscious decision that I was going to be a writer. Not only a writer, but a published writer (and, if I were to be honest, a perfect writer).

The question was, how would I go about doing that?

So, I began a quest to find the legendary manual of how to become a published writer.

I started out at the library, sussing out any tome that claimed to have insight into the craft of writing. Then I went online to search and finally, I went to the bookstore. During this time I found several books from varying degrees of (famous/accomplished) writers. Over the course of a couple years I accumulated quite a collection.

And I read them all, cover-to-cover, until I felt I had a grasp on the craft and I knew what I had to do.

Bear in mind, during all this time of research and reading, I did very little in the way of actual writing beyond the occasional exercise I found in the various books.

The wisdom I gleaned from all of that can be summed up as follows:

  • Write what you know;
  • Develop your own “voice” (although I still had NO idea what that actually meant);
  • Research the marketplace;
  • Make your first sentence/paragraph/chapter gripping and above all, memorable. It had to make the reader want to keep moving forward. I found this one particularly troublesome, because while the various books gave examples of what they meant, nothing was ever said about how to do it.

Now, before I go much further, let me restate something that I think I’ve only inferred: I was looking for someone else to tell me how to write and be successful. That is an important thing to understand because, at the end of the day, every writer is different. Some plot, some don’t. Some focus on character, others on plot. As far as I know, there is no formula that guarantees success.

Still, I tried to find one.

So, I tried writing what I knew. I read a lot of Fantasy growing up so I must naturally be a Fantasy writer. I went through the motions of plotting the Fantasy novel. It was painful, but I was happy with what I ended up with.

Then I decided to tackle the reader-grabbing first sentence.

I think I spent over a month on that sentence and, when I was done, I didn’t feel particularly gripped. Griped, maybe, but definitely not gripped. So, if the first sentence wasn’t the greatest one ever written, surely the first paragraph would be?

Not so much. So, after several iterations (and weeks) I moved on to the greatest first chapter.

Twenty-seven iterations and two-years later I finally said, “ENOUGH”, it’s time to move on. I still didn’t have a perfect first chapter but I had read new advice that said, “you cannot edit something if it isn’t on the page.”

So I wrote and I revised as I wrote and eventually I had a novel. Eventually in this case equaled seven years. Seven VERY long years. And I still didn’t have a perfect book to show for it. (I have to admit that I revised extensively as I wrote, trying to make the story perfect – all I managed was to take seven years to write a 90,000 word novel)

But I did have something I could edit and submit.

So then began the whole new research project of figuring out who to submit to, how to query and so on. I wrote several of the finest query letters I had ever written.

And so began a process of editing, then submitting (and not writing while I waited for responses) followed by more editing based on any comments I might get from my rejections (which further extended the time spent on the novel). I did this for slightly more than a year before I realized (finally) that perhaps this novel wouldn’t be perfect. Maybe ever.

After many years, I finally shelved that first novel and started actively working on novel number two.

Lessons Learned to this Point

  • Don’t expect the first novel to be stellar.
  • Don’t stop writing (even during submissions).
  • Don’t revise while writing (at least, not extensively).
  • Don’t shoot for the ideal out of the gate. It only slows you down.

I’m sure I probably learned a few more things, but those were some of the big ones. I’ll talk more about other learnings in later chapters of my writing journey.

Something I did NOT learn was how to be a perfect writer…or even what a perfect writer actually was. I also did not learn the hidden secret to overnight success. Apparently, I still had some distance to go in my journey.

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