Start at the Beginning

Today’s message is a simple one: start writing your story.

Worrying too long and too hard about how to start a story can make a writer freeze up. Stop worrying. Stop overthinking. Start writing.

There’s a difference between a work’s beginning and starting to work. –Twyla Tharp

I mean, it matters immensely how you start. But also, it doesn’t matter at all how you start.

It doesn’t matter because that you start writing is the most important thing, and it doesn’t matter because, no matter how you begin your story, there’s a good chance you’ve got it wrong. The beginning of your story is probably going to be awful. Get comfortable with that. Make peace with that. Learn to soak in that.

It’s a blessing you won’t realize how dreadful your beginning is until you finish your first draft and come back to the beginning to revise. That’s okay. You’ll fix it in rewrites. For now, get your story down on the page. And then steel yourself. It’s going to be bad. Or at the very least, not good.

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. –Anton Chekhov

Around this time last year, I sent my mentor, Tod Goldberg, the first 118 pages of a novel I’d started. Halfway down page 58, Tod told me. That’s where my story started. Halfway. Down. Page. 58. The first 57.5 pages had to go.

That is an extreme example that I won’t go into. I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say, I made a lot of mistakes. But you don’t have to repeat them. It doesn’t have to be that bad.

Don’t really start just any old place. Keep the following things in mind and try to start in the right place to save yourself some effort and some tears down the road:

  1. The best place to start is generally in medias res–in the middle of things. Start in the thick of the action. Immediately engage your readers and pull them into your story.
  2. Along those same lines, avoid “throat clearing,” that tendency we have to start a story with lengthy, boring backstory and descriptions of characters and places. If you need to write all that for yourself, to get into the story, by all means do. Then ruthlessly delete it from your next draft.
  3. Once you’ve gotten a full draft down on paper, go back and spend a lot of time perfecting that beginning. Write a killer opening paragraph–you’ll be amazed at the details, descriptions, and backstory you can sneak into an interesting and engaging opening paragraph when you put the work in. Your opening paragraph can do so much heavy lifting if you’ll only let it. But it has to be engaging to read all the same.
  4. Spend even more time crafting an opening line that takes a reader’s breath away. Try this one, the opening line from Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Six words. So good the publisher put it on the book cover. How often does that happen? Or this one, the opening line from Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland: “When Sal Cupertine was going to kill a guy, he’d walk right up and shoot him in the back of the head.” Sold! Any reader worth their library card has to keep reading. As a writer, that’s your job–give your readers a reason to keep reading.
  5. Get a friend you trust to tell you where your story starts. My friend Jackie DesForges is the story beginning whisperer. She instinctively knows where a story should start. When her friends can’t kill their own darlings, she will happily kill them for us.

“Cut this. And this. And this.” Slash slash slash. “Your story starts here.” –story whisperer Jackie DesForges

WRITER TIP: Start writing your story. Start in the middle of the action. If you’re not sure where that is, then start at the beginning and work your way toward it. Once you get there, cut out all the stuff that is not it.

A Handful of Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature art and image courtesy of Christopher Wiley.

Leo Tolstoy played chess. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Jane Austen played cards. Mark Twain was into scrapbooking and inventing–he combined these two hobbies to invent the scrapbook with adhesive pages.

This week, I want to encourage you to get away from your desk and out of the house. All writing and no living makes for some dull fiction. Hobbies, outside interests, physical activity–all these things will make you a better writer. Some of the best hobbies for writers include reading, traveling, photography, and people watching. Any of these activities will expand your ideas about the world and help you to see the world and the people in it from a different perspective. They will also fill your mental arsenal with images, sounds, and smells.

I’ve lately been fascinated with asking my writer friends what they do when they aren’t writing, and the results both surprised and delighted me. I got a few more responses in recent weeks, so here’s an encore post–five more writers and their other interests. I hope these inspire you to take some risks, take a break from writing, and seek out more fun in your own life.

Linda Romano: Writer, Cyclist & Runner:

Writer Linda Romano escaping her desk for a bike ride.

Observing the environment stimulates my creative process and helps me focus. When an idea feels important, instead of relying on memory, I try to jot it down somewhere. If not in a small notebook that I keep in my car, then texts or emailed notes to my phone. The phone has become an easy way to talk to myself!

Biking, running, and most outdoor activities have kept me sane over the years from events that occurred early in my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in the beginning of Title IX when sports for girls were more available. It became an opportunity to engage in a community activity with a sense of comradeship, especially with other girls and women. Since then, I have learned to use physical activity as an escape to reengage my mind on new thoughts and avoid mental tailspins. More recently it has been an opportunity to engage with people of all ages. When I return to my desk and write, it feels like a fresh start. A sentence can take on a new form. A new idea may be triggered that wasn’t present earlier. Even a walk around the block can make a difference.

When she isn’t taking a spin around Northern California, writer and engineer Linda Romano is hard at work on her memoir.

Joe Garrity: Writer, Director & Improviser:

I got into improv, trepidatiously, as a writer first. Previously I had considered improv a sport only for professional actors, capital P Performers. I learned through watching many live shows during a semester in New York what a wide range of people took part in the practice: introverts, extroverts, listeners, talkers, leaders, followers. And I learned that none of these attributes actually belonged to anyone forever. We each contained multitudes. Shortly after college I stepped into my first improv course, a night class held at the Berkeley YWCA with retirees and computer programmers. I was terrified but slowly became acclimated to the central idea: courting terror. Disarming it. Practicing equanimity. Through one class, into another, from a theater in San Francisco to one in New York, I followed a winding path toward a friendlier relationship with my imagination. It became easier to reserve judgement, to honor feeling, to sit in uncertainty. To really laugh. Now I find myself in Los Angeles, studying at The Groundlings theater just down the street from me, where so many of my heroes have trained. I’m right where I want to be, in a scene I couldn’t have written.

Joe Garrity is a writer, director, and editor originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote, directed, and starred in the award-winning short film Twinsburg. Joe is directing Sunday Night at Jane’s by playwright Emily Powers for this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Tickets go on sale May 1st.

Christopher Wiley: Writer & Artist

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Sensory experiences spark inspiration for me. Creating art becomes tactile, visual and problem-solving encounters for my brain. It is relaxation, a brief vacation from the assemblages of words on a blank page. It encourages uninhibited mind wandering that allows me to tap into unfiltered thoughts, ideas and feelings. Art also makes good practice for experimentation. I’d say that my art is craft-oriented, relying on mostly found objects and materials. Discovering and using found things for art projects gets me to see these discarded objects in a new way. Putting unusual or unlikely objects together in the physical world is a great exercise for expanding a writer’s mind. It cultivates my writer’s third eye that urges me to see—and express—the world clearly and creatively.

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Christopher Wiley’s short play Irreversible Binomials recently premiered at The Post Theatre Company at Long Island University. Several of his poems recently appeared in Bending Genres and Peculiar.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher: Writer, Pianist & Snowboarder:

Playing the piano provides a perfect break when I’m writing. I mainly play the same few pieces (occasionally I learn something new, and an old favorite drops off the rotation), so practicing has an immediate effect; I can hear myself improve. Unlike with writing, I know the notes, so I can change the tone, the pace, the emotion. That resets my brain.

I can’t do this as often, but I also love to snowboard. How else can one access a snow-covered Narnian forest? On snowy tree days, I’m through the wardrobe, which will never stop being my ultimate fantasy. Also, when I’m in extreme terrain, which I prefer, I am one hundred percent in the moment. I’m a chronic overthinker, so the sudden silence in my brain is a tremendous relief. Sometimes this happens when I write, but not as frequently; danger forces the switch. I tend to have lots of ideas after I access that (underused) portion of my brain. And more optimism. At the top of a giant mountain, there’s no past (regrets) and no future (worries)—there’s only that rock and that cliff and that tree.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher‘s short story “Family Map” recently appeared in Kelp Journal.

Mick Guinn: Writer, Recording Artist, Gardener, Cyclist, Polymath ….

I was told recently (by a professional who should know) that my curse is I’m a polymath, which has nothing to do with math, which is good because I’m just “okay” at math, unless it’s financial woe math where I’m wont to articulate and exaggerate in great algebraic detail––which still doesn’t make me good at math––but doesn’t rule out the possibility of polymath. It could just be my ADHD. However, if the polymath diagnosis is correct, it may explain why my careers and pastimes are strewn all over the place like socks that never made the hamper.

As a recording artist and lyricist of questionable talent, I often unconsciously create wildly rhyming sentences with cadences like dances that call too much attention to themselves. All the while, pining for something more akin to the liquidity of lyrical prose to drop on the page. Most of the time when my butt is bolted to the chair as instructed, weeds call me out of it. The pullable, not smokable, kind.  Gardening’s in a different part of what’s left of my brain, giving the write brain a rest. I’m particularly obsessed with pruning, which feels like editing. Cycling sans earbuds does something similar. That’s when I hear the voices. I used to throw pots for the same unthinking reason. I guess the best pastimes for me are ones that use the unused parts of my brain.  Or the knees I need to take a walk with now.

Mick Guinn is unsurprisingly unpublished at this time, but currently completing work on a 3000-page coming-of-age memoir titled, Based on a True Story, which he hopes still is.

WRITER TIP: How do your outside interests enrich your writing life? Consider not only the direct connections, but indirect benefits. If running is your thing, you don’t have to come back from a run with a full-blown story idea. As Collin Mitchell shared last week, running and other physical activities release endorphins and keep us mentally and physically healthy. Other activities might exercise our right brains or help us keep our mental edge. All these things will make us better writers and will keep us in top writing form for many, many years.

KISS Your Manuscript

KISS: Keep it simple, scribbler.

When I’m working with writers, I ask that manuscripts be submitted to me in Times New Roman typeface, 12-point font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and a half-inch indentation at each new paragraph. Why? Well, yes, it makes my job easier–help me help you and all that. But most importantly, this is the standard manuscript format that most agents and publishers will ask you to use, and you may as well get used to it.

William Shunn has a great website full of resources for formatting every kind of manuscript: Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers 

Writers often argue against simplicity when it comes to formatting manuscripts. I once had a writer tell me he had to use Lucida Handwriting 11-point font, and that he might be able to give me 1.15 spacing, but he could never give me double spacing. That’s fine. I’m your book coach and your editor–you don’t have to please me. I’ll take it in whatever form you send it to me, then I’ll change it into standard manuscript format before I begin my work. For both our sakes. But an agent or a publisher may not let you off the hook so easily.

I get it. You’re an artist, and you shouldn’t be constrained by standard manuscript format. It interferes with your creativity. I was once a promoter for rock and punk bands, so I know all about artists, and riders demanding multiple packs of Extra Polar Ice chewing gum, and aversions to abiding by the rules. And I’m a writer too, so I know about finding inspiration in places and routines that may seem strange or quirky or eccentric to others.

So listen, while you’re creating, I don’t care if you use Modern Love Grunge typeface in lime green bold and italicized 18-point font, single-spaced, with three-inch margins. I really don’t. I’m all for you doing whatever it takes to get those words on the page. And if you want me to change the formatting for you so you don’t have to witness the carnage, I can do that. We are in this together, and I want to help you and your book succeed.

But when it’s time to send your work out into the world, let’s keep it simple, scribbler. Use simple, standard formatting, and let your story be the thing that shines.

WRITER TIP: Don’t get too attached to the way your manuscript looks. Remember, the formatting of your manuscript is not story. Pretty typeface won’t make a bad story better, and it may obscure a good story and make it unreadable. When you’re ready to submit your work to an agent or a publisher, let go of the fancy formatting that can be distracting, detract from your story, and frustrate readers. Don’t give an agent a reason to put your manuscript down. You’ve put all that hard work into writing your novel. Now’s the time to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.

Writing and Writing on Running

Please enjoy this guest post by writer and runner Collin Mitchell.

Much has been written about the relationship between running and the successful writing life: there are the obvious comparisons between the slog of marathon training and producing a novel, the way fresh air and exertion clears fog from the brain, and the age-old idea that any kind of pain makes one stronger.

Generally speaking, I have no argument with any of this.

So why write more about running and writing? What else is there to say, really?

Writers, perhaps more than most people, can appreciate the link between mental stimulation and an agile mind. Riding a bike or people-watching at the mall are decent ways to get words on the page—or at least delay them. We all want something (in this case, writing the Great American Novel), yet it’s the path we choose, or are forced to take, that’s the more interesting point of the story.

So, what of the pursuit of writing a novel, or anything, really? John Gardner has said that the primary subjects of fiction are human emotion, values, and beliefs. Is running an embodiment of this idea while also serving as a means by which to write?

By some stroke of fate, running found me. It’s also one of the few things I know how to do as well as eat or go to the bathroom, so I consider myself lucky that something which fell into my lap has proven to be natural to my disposition. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami intimated something similar in his musings on running. Much in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, appeals to me—the workaday approach to running and writing, the satisfaction with boredom. In short, we both need (more like, crave) the empty, benign space running provides. But here, I’d rather reflect on an anecdote that doesn’t describe me at all. Murakami writes:

I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

Each of these traits is a “no” for me. I began running at twenty-five because a friend, who had just finished his first marathon, encouraged me to give it a try. His accomplishment made me jealous in the best way, and I went for it. I’m still running nearly fifteen years later. My writing life had a similar trajectory. After years of avoiding the desire to write, I finally got started after a friend asked me to contribute something for a zine he was putting together. That same friend, (over years, mind you) cajoled me into working with him on a film, then movie scripts, and finally an animated TV pilot that got some attention in a handful of Burbank production offices. And then, after all that, when this same friend got his MFA and connected me with a paid writing gig, it finally occurred to me (boy, am I dense) that I should take myself a little bit more seriously. Unlike Murakami, I specifically don’t do whatever I feel like and almost always, wait for permission to move forward. Of all the things I wish I could change about myself, this is number one.

So what do writing and running and me have to do with each other? Well, we were pushed together, like reluctant kids at a junior high dance. Over the years we’ve found that if we have to be here (read: in life/on earth) we might as well stick together. Like the scrappy outcasts in an ‘80s movie, we’re gonna get through this and hopefully get to the end, with a pizza and a pitcher of Coors Light to celebrate.

Mostly, I don’t know what I want to do with myself on any given day. If I could walk around the neighborhood from sunup to sundown, I would. But this won’t work with my current lifestyle (marriage/kid), so running has to get the job done—it’s more efficient. Similarly, I would love to read all day, but some priggish sense of duty and productivity doesn’t allow me to do that. So, instead, I do something slightly less indolent, and I write. Which means I have to push a lot of inertia aside.

Running gets my feelings in check, and together we wrangle in the aimlessness of living. Anger turns to indifference, or better, empathy. Frustration turns to mild annoyance. With any luck, enthusiasm raises its eager head.

But more than this, running is about remembering who I am. The real me, or the ideal me. The me who can transform an old story idea into something resembling a plot. The me who has the imagination to finally get some lines of dialogue out. The me who cares enough about himself, even if just for an hour, before the endorphins drop, to make something with my time. This is the me who is ten years old again and doesn’t care about what others think or how much money I’ve made or any of those other distractions.

Running makes me familiar with myself again and asks, gently, if I might want to take a step forward, pursue my wants. For a moment, those narrative emotions, values, and beliefs are in stark relief. If I take a moment, and walk through the mental opening a good run provides, I can have a story to call my very own.


Collin Mitchell is a graduate of the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He contributes to Publishers Weekly and Los Angeles Review of Books, and he lives in Redlands.