Writer Laura Stimson shares her thoughts on getting started and talks with authors and agents about taking those first steps.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack Beginnings, made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
Although most writing advice steers you toward knowing your characters, planning your story and understanding the themes before you begin, in reality, starting a new writing project can be more nuanced. You might meet a character in a dream, or get the idea reading a newspaper. You might live with the story folded inside you for weeks, months, years even, before committing anything to the page. Every writer approaches their story in a different way. For every writer who designs their narrative arc in a spreadsheet, there is one who begins with only the gauzy end-point in mind.
Think about what kind of writer you are. Is your approach helpful? How might intricate planning affect you in ten, fifty, a hundred pages time? What might three months’ of unplanned writing look like?
The beginning of your story isn’t necessarily where you’ll start your project, either, as Anjali Joseph, winner of Desmond Elliott Prize 2011, observes:
‘Begin anywhere, and keep going. When it gets hard, back off for a bit, then come back to it.’
Most writers will tell you that it’s important to find some pleasure in what you’re writing, so, to quote tidying guru Maria Kondo, start at the place that sparks joy. Monique Roffey, Orange Prize-shortlisted author of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, agrees:
‘Enjoy it. I just don’t buy that writing is so painful or even should be. I have fun writing books.’
Place your character(s) in a scene and make something happen to them. Start writing. Each word you write is micro-practice for the bigger project, so nothing is wasted. You might write a hundred words of rubbish to start with, but in writing those hundred words you’re asking yourself why? Why has this happened? Why does your character feel like this? Why now? Why is it important? You’re learning how best to tell your story and understand your characters, discovering what you do and do not enjoy. Every word you write, whether it makes it into the next draft or not, will form the basis of your voice as a writer. You may cut chapters, meet dead-ends or discard whole drafts. Here are some thoughts on ways to begin, and, crucially, how to keep going.
Good writing advice is only good writing advice if it works for you. You’ll know if you’re a five-am writer, a midnight oil-burner, a scrap-paper hoarder. Maybe you sandwich writing time between split-shifts in the staffroom, or in the hour before the school run. Maybe you write in great insomniac stretches, not dressing for days, and then step away for a fortnight. However you write, you should have an instinct about whether this is helping you or not. Does it feel productive? If not, how can you change your writing habits to serve you better? Escalator alumni Sam Hacking has come to understand how she writes best:
‘I don’t write everyday as I find that counter-intuitive, and for me quality counts way more than quantity.’
Once you have a plan for feasible, regular writing time, set yourself a few targets. Accept that things change but be firm with yourself.
As Monique says:
‘A novel is, on average, 90,000 words. Think about it, that’s 1,000 words a day for 90 days. Don’t shilly shally; bash it out. Try for 1,000 words a day for 90 days. If that’s too much, then go for 500 a day for 180 days. That’s 3 – 6 months’ work, that’s a very, very energetic and satisfying way to manifest a first draft.’
Do other things
There will be times when you lose the thread and your writing wavers. My advice? Step away. There are other ways to inspire and engage with your story. Many writers argue that there’s no such thing as writers’ block, only periods in which your work asks to be left alone. Feed your imagination during fallow periods. Explore how artists, musicians, filmmakers tell stories. Sam likes to engage with the wider writing community and other art forms to keep her going:
‘Be part of the writing community (and) go to writing events. I always listen to music to pull out the emotions to drive the piece.’
And all the while, read! Your love of reading drives you to write. If you can’t find joy in your story right now, seek solace in other worlds.
At some point in your writing project you will tackle the opening pages. Statistically speaking, these might change ten times over as the rest of the story takes form. Don’t be too pinned to these opening pages in the early days; your story is waiting to be told! Accept that you’ll likely go back to these once the story is complete.
‘You haven’t written the first page until you’ve written the last page. Most people who start a book never finish it. Make sure you’re not one of them. And once you’ve written the last page, you can go back and work out what the first page really is.’ — Ed Wilson, agent with Johnson & Alcock
What then, of the beginning itself? When it’s time to (re)tackle that opening page, scene, chapter, what should you consider? Jenny Knight, winner of our 2019 Common People mentoring scheme, sheds more light:
‘Beginnings are the hardest of all, I think, as both a writer and a reader. Everyone gets turned off by action that isn’t, characters we don’t care about, or descriptions that bore us; we want to be pulled in and swept along – a killer beginning is what stops you putting that book you just picked up down. For me, this needs to be striking in either voice, prose or premise, immediate (who cares about the weather or the colour of the curtains?), informative of setting and story, and definitely a question-raiser. Get in and out fast, and always leave them wanting more.’
If you want examples of novels with fantastic openings, take a look at these recommendations from Jenny:
- George Orwell’s 1984
- Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle
- Ali Smith’s Hotel World
- Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Brought to you by the Early Career Awards and supported by Arts Council England.
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