The Best Beginning

The best beginning is the one you can do.

This applies both to the beginning of novels, and “simply” to starting to write, or to establishing a writing schedule.

There are all sorts of books and instructions on how to start any of those, but what they leave out is: just begin any way you can. The rest will follow.

With novels, there are all kinds of ways to begin, including setting the tone of the book in the first paragraph. The theme in the first page. Make sure you start with the character who is central to the conflict, because readers are like ducklings, they imprint on the first moving thing they see.

However, you can always fix it in post. You can always go back and fix that beginning so it points the right way. You can lose the first fifty pages (beginning writers consistently start fifty pages too early.) Etc.

What you can’t make up for if you don’t do is: begin.

Lately I’ve been having this problem with a lot of things: I know what to do. I know how to do it. But I seem incapable of beginning.

It started with driving, which means it flew under the radar, because I’ve never LIKED driving. The uncoordinated, bad at sports kid who never got picked up for a team till the last bitter end. So I don’t trust myself driving, and never have. So, after two years of not driving (the car was being weird, and I was terrified of being stranded then my glasses were off. How off? Well, I fell going UPSTAIRS. A lot.)

So I stopped driving. And then when I wanted to start driving again it was like…. on the way to starting there was this huge step, like six feet high, and I couldn’t get to it to start.

I know, rationally, that I can drive, and I’m actually pretty good at it. (I had a particular defensive driving class, trying to get the fear out, and the instructor thought I was nuts, because I was already using all the techniques they teach people.) But there’s that first step, and unless it’s an emergency, I can’t start.

This seemed to be driving specific, until I found I also couldn’t speak French. For complete understanding of this, French was my second language, and I used to be as fluent in it as I am in English. Maybe more? I still can read in French as I do in English, and sometimes, when I fall down an internet rabbit hole, I don’t realize I’m reading in French, until afterwards, when I try to show something to Dan.

However, in a situation where speaking French is needed, I find that first step again, and it’s six feet high, and I can’t get up it. The words assemble in my head, but no power on Earth can get them out of my mouth.

I thought “Okay, that’s weird, but I’m out of practice.” Right?

Then after the move from hell I found the same thing happening to writing fiction. It was second nature for so long, and then, suddenly, there was that six foot first step, and I couldn’t get to it.

Until…. well, I had promised LawDog a story for his malta anthology. And I hadn’t written a short story in forever.

So there I was, trying to write it, because I’d promised.

It came out completely backwards. For the longest time, I had a paragraph and couldn’t figure out how to go on. This is because it was in fact the last paragraph of the story.

Once I figured that out, the story just came. And then I realized, it’s all still there, yes.

So, why the big issue with starting?

Recently a conversation with a friend that faced some of the same issues and who has knowledge of psychology/physiology clarified it.

All the mental linkages to do the work are still there. I can write/drive/speak French. It’s just that for whatever reason the initial linkage that sends the order to “now do the thing” got lost.

So I send the order to the brain “let’s do x”. And brain goes “no can do boss, there’s no lever to push to do this.”

But it’s only the initial lever that’s missing. Everything else is still there.

So the way to do it is to force it. Little steps. Just write a paragraph, then figure out where it goes. Just say a sentence in French, and let other people figure it out. Just get in the car and get used to being behind the wheel. Then drive around the block. Then drive around two blocks.

Rebuild the initial linkage again, so when you say “We’re going to do this” the brain has that lever and it’s not unobtanium.

Weirdly this is exactly the same as a driving-fear-desensitization program I bought. Get in the car, sit down, listen to some music. Pull in and out of the drive way. Now take it for a drive around the block.

Or as Peterson puts it “Sometimes you’re so broken, all you can do is look at your closet, and decide what needs to be done.” That’s all you can do today and that’s enough.

So, the point of beginning is to begin. No matter how small.

Do it today.

14 comments

  1. Yes.

    All you can do today is what you can do. Do that, and the next thing will come along right behind it. So next, do that. Pretty soon, you’re functioning.

    And it sucks that I know this, but I do. Happy functionality, ladies and germs.

  2. I go to my “useless bits” file and tell myself this is just practice. Not a real story. I don’t know if that kick-starts my muse or just kicks her, but it seems to help.

    1. TXRed’s muse, responding to the above:

      “Oh, really? You think this is just practice? You think that you’re never going to have to deal with any of these characters again? You think it doesn’t matter if their world doesn’t totally make sense because you’re just writing a little vignette and won’t have to find a way to iron out those contradictions? Oh, let me tell you, Kitty Cat, you’ve got another think coming…”

      1. Yep, alas. I realized last night that I have to toss a lot of “But in the real world. . !” out the window and use fairy-tale logic instead. Because when you write to a fairy tale pattern, you need to stick with it. (N.B. this applies to this set of stories, NOT to all variations on fairy tales.)

  3. I’m just getting back into the swing of writing, and blogposts after nearly two years of feeling … well, rather drained and dried-up. I finished a huge ghost-written project for hire, which took precedence over everything else for the last year … and now my mind is simply popping with ideas for posts and chapters and stories. I dunno – am I finally over the Covid that I caught a year ago?

  4. Yep, my minor brush with the big C and chemo a while ago seems to have short-circuited my work ethic. My health is now fine (better than ever with all the weight loss), but I’m having a helluva time getting back into the grind. The hospital killed my laptop, so I also had my whole work & life platform to put back together (no matter how good the backups, you still need working memory to remember all the processes and shortcuts). It feels like I have all my creative work lined up and ready to go, filling the hopper, and all I need to do now is turn the spigot the right way, but that first twist is… elusive.

    Sigh. Aging is not for the weak-minded. But if not now, then when, right?

    1. I suspect it’s the general feeling that the end is coming that makes it hard to start or plan for the future. Because it’s not just you, or the hostess, or me. It seems like it is extremely widespread.

      Even where I work, apparently every project we have had had a negative adjustment this year. It’s not just a few programs that are having problems: it is the entire industry not being able to execute.

      I suspect this is an example of the freeze response to threats. This big of a thing we can’t fight it, and we can’t run from it, so the instinctive response is to stay very still and hope it passes us by.

      But standing still isn’t going to work here, so we’ve just got to keep moving.

      1. There’s a lot of truth to the “freeze” reaction, of general hopelessness — a reminder why despair is considered a sin, I suppose. I despise myself for reading too much of the news and the consequent reaction but that doesn’t help any.

        Time to just bull ahead regardless. What’s the worst that can happen? Death? Not before I get the damn books written, by Odin! And then there’s the bookkeeping to keep the IRS at bay… 🙂

  5. I have been writing four-five books a year for years. It was not hard. It was a joy. It provided an escape for the dark things that came crawling out of my mind after my wife of 40+ years died of cancer. Yet finishing that last book of this year was a slog. Like pulling teeth. Drudgery.

    Not sure why. It’s coming up on the fifth anniversary of my wife’s death, and I have been going full tilt writing and working a full-time day job during that period, even through the lockdown years. I think I am just hitting the wall. It is not health issues, because I am in disgustingly good health. I think in my case it is my brain telling me to take a break for a few weeks – to just kick back and spend some time resting and planning. Read for fun and not for research.

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