Imagine a magnesium bright desert. There is nothing as far as your eye can see, and the horizon and the landscape are so indistinct from one another that they merge into a single formless, toneless mass.
Welcome to the first page of your novel. Surprise, surprise – it’s blank. Better take on lots of water and figure out your route, it’s going to be a long road.
It gets better, though. Having a road map helps. You build it. You build the landscape too (though that can be capricious and surprising – it should be). It’s your world, remember?
Make no bones about it (there are many in the blank page desert, slowly bleaching in the sun), writing a novel is tough. It takes time, and isn’t for the faint hearted. If you are faint of heart, try some shorter at first. If that gives you concern too then I’d suggest getting the heck out of the desert at the first opportunity before you expire. This trek is not for you, sir/madam.
Perhaps toughest is coming up with that opening line. Thing is, once you’ve got your landscape up and running (your characters and the story they drive and inhabit), it becomes a little more self-perpetuating. Before that happens, there’s just the desert and all the compass directions laid before you.
See, the thing about opening lines is, there’s never just one. You might think there is, but that’s not true. There are lots, and therein lies the rub. So many places where you could begin, so many choices, directionless and amorphous.
It can be paralysing.
Write more than one. Don’t be afraid to throw out what you’ve spent the entire morning agonising over. No words are that important that you can’t jettison them in favour of better or more appropriate ones.
Recycle and redraft. In the blank desert landscape, this isn’t only environmentally friendly, it’s economically sound too. I’ve dumped loads of failed opening lines, only to find them in my mental scrap and ready to be deployed elsewhere. Throw nothing out. Not completely anyway. With a little care and attention, it can be put to use again.
But I’m digressing.
I equate writing a novel to running a long race. Think of it as a journey. I remember an interesting quote about this very subject (apologies if I don’t remember this accurately): Writing a novel is like driving down a dark road with your lights on. You know where you’ve been, and you can see just what is in front of you, but no further ahead than that. The only way you know what is around the next bend is to reach it and have a look.
Think about your route. Have a route. We are back in the blank page desert again, but if you have a route you are much more likely not to get lost, especially when you start to establish some of the landmarks along the way.
Going back to the idea of a long race, the opening line is you on the starting line. It’s your preparation and thought process up to this point. You just need to put one foot in front of the other.
Endurance is the key. You have to have e physical and mental chops to stay the course. Break up the miles. It’s hot in the desert, but you’ll be all right if you just take it steady and try not to think about the journey in its entirety. That is the way to madness. You’ll end up (or rather the idea of your novel will) as one of those bleached skulls on the side of the road, the ruins of your story putrefying in the heat.
When I’m writing a novel, I prepare. Mind and body. I research and plan. I think. Then when I’m ready, I act. I consider the variant possibilities of my opening line, that first scene and simply pick one.
I take it step by step, mile and mile. It’s tough at first, and takes some adjustment. All long races are, I think. I find a novel doesn’t start to attain its own gravity (and thus pulling me along into its orbit) until I reach about 20 to 30k words. I know I’m in a long race then, not a sprint. I reconcile the fact it’s going to take some time. I double check my route map. Do it more than once, to remind yourself where you are going. I do the miles, I work at that everyday even if I’m only chipping away at them.
Write. Read. Repeat.
There is no cheat or trick. That’s it.
Opening lines, they are scary but think of all the possibilities and what might come of it all when the finish line is in sight and you get to cross it…