Writerly Preperations & The First Page

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here on my blog.)

Chapter Two

Writerly Preparations

Okay. You’ll need to prepare to write this book. You don’t want to walk in all half-assed and get your head blown off on the first day. This isn’t some kind of day at the beach (unless you’re writing at a beach). Read a lot of books (hopefully you’ve been reading books for a long time).[1] Read a thousand books. Two thousand. Then go get drunk. Get horribly sober. Stare into the maw of your own insanity and reflect on the precipitous nature of existence and how life may be snatched from you at any moment, like a leaf plucked from its branch by the wind. Chill out on your couch and daydream about your book. Think about your book while you’re doing the dishes or taking a shower. Let the story grow inside you for a while, long enough so that you at least have a toehold into this new, mysterious world, a wedge to start with. Your wedge can be something as simple as a character’s name or an image or it can be as complex as narrative theme you’d like to explore (such as JUSTICE, or LOVE).

Once you have your wedge into the story and feel confident enough to begin a few practical preparations are in order. Buy a lot of groceries and don’t forget the coffee, tea, sparkling water, trail mix, and some kind of candy to snack on when you need a little extra pep (I like gummy worms and red licorice). A big key to the writing process is the beverages—you’ll need to keep hydrated during these long hours at the desk. Nobody likes a writer with a dry mouth. And, speaking of desks, you’ll need to make sure yours is sorted out. Do you have fun tchotchkes to occasionally distract yourself with? I have a little Buddha statue I got at the Great Wall of China and a tiny red monster truck. I rub the Buddha’s belly for good luck. I like to rev up the truck and send it crashing into my cat when she sleeps on the floor in a manner a little too complacent for my tastes. I am a big fan of sandalwood incense or maybe a candle that smells like the woods, something I can burn both as an offering and as a source of olfactory stimulation.

I also listen to music when I write, but I know this isn’t for everybody. Sometimes it all gets too much, too many words, and silence is best. When I write I listen to albums I know already or my well-used Pandora stations. I find it hard to listen to new music because it draws too much of my attention to it. But I do find that the right music, played not too loud, acts as an aural focusing agent, like a sonic white noise blanket; music can inspire your writing even when you aren’t particularly aware of needing inspiration, one beautiful art form mingling with and subtly influencing another.

Okay. So now we’ve got our tunes playing and our larder well stocked and a refreshing beverage at hand and we’re ready to dive in, to write ourselves a novel or a collection of groundbreaking short stories. Hell yeah! Our time is our own and the page lies blank before us. Even our beloved pets seem to be watching us with a newfound respect and a breathless sense of expectancy. Is there anything I’ve forgotten to add?

Oh yeah.

Patience.

You’re going to need lots and lots of patience.

Patience with the process, patience with yourself. Patience with the characters you’re going to be forced to slowly unwrap and name and describe and agonize over and put through the narrative wringer. Patience with the world your building, line by line, and patience with the events that occur in this fictitious world—the plot—which will seem to zigzag wildly as you pursue this first draft or, as if often the case, go nowhere particularly interesting or powerful. There will be days when you feel as if every word you write is so terrible you might as well gouge your eyes out with a letter opener and jump off a cliff into the sea, where the sharks will feast on your terrible-at-writing body and spit out all the unnecessary dialogue tags. This will be a perfectly natural feeling—don’t sweat it too much. Just get the work done and then go take a nap, or drink a cocktail. Remember that the beautiful thing about writing something, especially in this golden age of computing, is that you can always return to it and edit what you’ve written.

As a youngster I was not particularly known for patience. It was the eighties, and then the nineties, and every day when I woke up the world was on fire. I wrote my first novel at fifteen and it was pretty much off to the races after that. Type, type, type, story story story. Oh god, the speed at which I wrote drove my college professor crazy. Slow down, David, Jim would say to me. Take your time with it. Over and over again he’d tell me to slow down, his own little mantra for crazed lunatics like me.

Patience is something I’ve learned only through long years and much effort, especially when it comes to writing. The publishing process, which is hilariously, glacially slow, has helped with this (you can spend eighteen months writing and editing a book, a month waiting for your agent to read the book, a few more months editing the book with his suggestions in mind, another month waiting for him to read the new draft and then, if he’s satisfied, he’ll start submitting it to publishers, a gut churning process that can itself last a year or longer and, if you’re very lucky, you’ll emerge after all this time with a book deal, with a prospective publication date that’s on average eighteen months later from when you sign the contract. No wonder self-publishing is so tempting in the age of instant gratification, right?).

So I’ve been forced to learn patience whether I wanted to or not and only now am I reaping the full rewards of this new temperament. A patient writer puts less stress on themselves, doesn’t sweat the small stuff as much and forgives even the shitiest of their prose. A patient writer will keep coming back to the page, day after day, long after the temperamental hothead has thrown up their hands in disgust and left the office.

Chapter 3

The First Page

            Getting the first page down of a new story or novel can be a daunting proposition. Look at that blank page! How blank and pure and untrammeled by words it is! Why the hell would anyone want to sully its virginal magnificence? What kind of presumptuous lunatic would do such a thing? Ohgodohgodohgodohgod…

Yes, filling that blank first page can be an intimidating task, yet despite the hesitancy I often feel when sitting down to begin a new project I’ve come to look at the first page of anything—novel, short story, raving book on writing manifesto—as a good opportunity to let loose whatever demons happen to have been bent up in the backwater chambers of my heart and let them pour through my fingertips. I like to arrive at the first page, the first sentence like a fat, don’t-give-a-damn-father-of-five whipping off his shirt at the Wisconsin Dells and cannonballing into the deep end of the pool.

I want to make a big splash. I want to surprise myself right off and get into the characters and their world as soon as possible. No dillydallying, no prolonged description of the goddamn weather (unless you’re writing some kind of meteorological apocalypse tale, I suppose). No unnecessary prologues. No clever little narratorial trickery framing everything to come. No dialogue without the necessary context first (a cheap trick in my book). No spending ten pages just laying out the town or the city or whatever the setting happens to be. No! Just give us the character(s), give us the hint of conflict to come, give us the world we’re entering already fully formed and trust us (and yourself) to fill in the blanks as we go along, with as little stilted exposition as possible, thank you very much.

The first page is about as uncharted a territory as you’re going to find in fiction. On that first page there’s nothing, it is fresh, new fallen snow, but after that first page you’re on to a second page and suddenly a precedent has been set and the reader has already begun expecting certain things to arise out of what they’ve read before. This process continues, much as the story continues, all the way up until the last page, with the reader’s expectations growing with each page turned and each minute they’ve invested in the story.

But on the first page, yes, the author is still free to set up their story in any manner they choose. They can have a narrator speaking in a funky made up dialect, like A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. They can pummel you with a character’s personality like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or they can portray a surreal new world through the eyes of a compelling narrator, causing questions to pop up in your mind almost immediately, as Margret Atwood does in the first paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale and Toni Morrison does in Beloved. The only hard and fast rule I can detect in all this, in all the best and wonderful first pages in literature, is my personal maxim Don’t Be Boring.

Boring is a killer, especially these days, with all our TV binges and the Internet and video games and fancy poodles and everything else vying for a reader’s attention. Agents and editors often judge a work on the first five pages alone, or the first page, or even sometimes that first goddamn sentence. Seriously, they do. This isn’t the olden days anymore before electricity when watching moths fly into burning candelabras was the most exciting thing you could do on a Friday night after a hard day as a scullery maid or a fellmonger. Creative writing of all forms had a good head start but goddamn if the competition hasn’t come on strong in recent years. Some of the very best writers, and nearly all the money, is flowing toward film and television. The carefully crafted novel is slowly being edged out of the arena of cultural importance—isn’t telling an interesting story from the very beginning the least a novelist can do to give their work a fighting chance? I think so, my friends. I think so.

That said, there are certain signposts which are helpful to plant early on in a story, if not on the very first page, because refusing to plant them causes confusion in the reader’s mind and a confused reader quickly turns into an annoyed reader and an annoyed reader will set a book down and move on to something else, especially when they’ve just started a story and have nothing invested in it yet, not even ten minutes of their time.

So, in no particular order, here are the questions a reader will instinctively be asking as a story begins, be it short or long:

Does this character have a name? What is it?

What’s this character’s gender?

Who exactly is the main character[2] of this story?

If the main character isn’t on this first page of this story, why should I care about this other character? Just because she’s sexy and about to get killed by a monster?

 

What time period are we dealing with here? Is this the present, the near future, the distant past? Is that why everyone is driving a flying car?

Where is this? France? China? A land far, far away?

And finally, perhaps most importantly, what the hell is exactly going on here?

Now I’m aware a multitude of great writers have denied answering one or several of these instinctual questions for several chapters or even an entire novel and done so in brilliant ways, but I’m willing to bet all of them were aware of the questions their readers would want answered ahead of time and used them to shape their narratives in some way that served the story as a whole, not because they wanted to be deliberately opaque (except maybe William Faulkner—I wouldn’t put anything past that guy). There’s a big difference between forgetting to give your reader what their hearts wants (and their comprehension demands) and doing so in deliberate, sloppy fashion. The veteran reader knows when they’re in the hands of a master and when an apprentice, through poor craftsmanship or arrogance, does a poor job of bringing them into a new world and establishing the rules of that world in unobtrusive fashion.

They’ll know it on the first page.

[1] You’d be surprised how many beginning writers want to write a novel but haven’t read many (even in the genre they want to write in!). The staggering foolishness of this is so self-evident that I’m not even going to comment further on it, and I’ll comment further on almost anything.

[2] Also known as the protagonist, the central character who enters into conflict with an opposing force or character, known as the antagonist. We’re talking Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarty, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, me vs. my French teacher in college.

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