Making a great start

Everything I write begins in the same way. I have a nice bit of inspiration to kick it off. I wade right in with a snappy opening paragraph that throws the main character right into the thick of the story. I muster up the best of intentions to knuckle down and write without pause all the way to the end. A nice bit of inspiration, a good opening and the best of intentions, that’s how I always start.

So why do I find it so hard to finish? Why do I have at least thirty short stories and three novels sitting there begging to be completed? Not to mention half a dozen undercooked blog posts waiting in line. I’m a good starter but a terrible finisher and I have a feeling I’m not the only writer with this problem.

Up front, it’s probably wise to recognise that starting is the easiest part of writing. When an idea is burning away in your brain or some character is jumping around your head, it’s really easy to make a start. It’s the best fun you can have in writing, beginning a new story. But the fun won’t last forever. Sometimes it won’t even last past the first couple of pages. So, get used to the idea – writing is a disciplined task and it takes effort to see the story through to completion. Most of the time, it’s an enjoyable task but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work sometimes.

What happens, then, when your story stalls? How do you push forward when your opening peters out and you have no idea where the story is heading? Or even when you’re stuck in the middle with no clear path ahead? One of the first things I do is walk away. Sounds odd, I know, but I often need to give myself time to catch up with the story. I know the rest of it is in my head somewhere, but worrying away at it doesn’t help and forcing it only results in a contrived story. I hate those kinds of stories and I’m sure readers do too.

Countless times, I’ve left the beginning of a story to sit on the page for a few days, or even a few months, and then one day a cog turns over in my brain and the story is off and running once more. It’s like a distillation process. I’ve set up the story and now it has to mature away in my head. I try to let it take a natural course and unfold in its own time. When I hear of writers taking seven years to write a novel, I feel reassured because I’m sure that’s what they’re doing. Even though I’m often impatient for their next book (thinking Tim Winton or Margaret Atwood or Hilary Mantel), I’d rather read a story that has evolved naturally rather than churned out to meet the one-book-a-year publishing deadline.

At some point though, you have to start putting in the time to finish the story. Here are some tricks I’ve found to help give those cogs a bit of a push when they really need it:

  • Interview your main character. By this, I mean just have a chat in your head and ask him about himself or what he thinks or what he wishes. Take note of anything that interests or intrigues you about what your character says. None of the chat has to go into the story, it’s just a way of getting to know your main character. After all, if you don’t know your main character, how will you know what he will say or do in response to what happens in the story? Often, having a chat with the main character makes me care about him/her a whole lot more and gives me renewed enthusiasm for the story.
  • Write three possible endings. I like to write an ending in which the main character gets what he wants, then a second one in which he doesn’t get what he wants and a third ending where he comes to some sort of compromise. This sounds strange, I know, but I often find a story won’t unfold until I know where it might end up. I choose what I think is the best of the three endings and it becomes like a destination on a map. If I know where I’m heading, all I have to do is work out how to get there and that’s a lot easier than not even knowing the next step.
  • Burst writing is one of my favourite kick-starters to get the story moving again, wherever you happen to be stalled. I also call it blah-de-blah writing, for reasons which will become obvious. The method is really simple: I pick an interesting word in one of my previous sentences, maybe a character name or an interesting noun or a strong verb; then I put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper if you like) and, starting with that word, I write for at least ten minutes without stopping. Heaps of rubbish pours out and I often type line after line of blah-de-blah (there it is!), but it’s important not to pause, correct or re-read anything you write. Just keep getting the words on the page and don’t stop. At the end of ten minutes, I always find I’ve got a few nuggets of enlightenment about my story or a good lead on where the plot needs to head or some interesting facts I didn’t previously know about my main character. 

A writer who finishes a story, however long or short, is a hero in my estimation. Anyone can start a story but it takes a lot more oomph to finish. Oomph? Now there’s an interesting word to kick off a story …

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Words That Punch Above Their Weight

If I had to pick a favourite word, it would have to be whoops. It’s so universal, so expressive and everyone can read whatever they imagine into that one word. It’s a word that punches above its weight.

I first noticed the power of whoops when it made newspaper headlines in 2000, the year Sydney hosted the Olympics. Early that year, during the selection trials for the Australian swimming team, the unthinkable happened. In the 800m freestyle, Australia’s swimming hero Ian Thorpe made a disastrous break before the starter gun and was disqualified. He was world champion for the 800m and had won gold for that event in the previous Olympics. So the photograph of him tumbling towards the water as his feet left the blocks made the front page of every newspaper in the country. In one national newspaper, beneath that photograph was a one-word headline: Whoops! Most people still easily recall seeing that photograph with its single word in large print, even though more than a decade has passed since.

Whoops! meant so many things in the minds of Australians who saw it. It said: well, we didn’t see that coming or perhaps oh dear, there goes gold for Australia or even never mind, Ian, we all make mistakes. It might also have expressed what was going through Ian Thorpe’s mind at the time, like: what was I thinking? or please don’t let this count against me.

Whoops! said it all and more.

When I’m writing, I constantly search for words that punch above their weight, words that have more than one meaning or words that imply something deeper. Even when I’m not writing, I take note of interesting or powerful words I read or hear. Not big words because I’m not a fan of big words, just simple words that work really well for the space they take up.

One of my stories is called Xiao’s Patch and I chose the word patch because it has multiple layers of meaning. The story is about a homeless man, so the word patch refers to the small stretch of street where he lives. Patch also means a scrap of something or something to cover up a hole or something make-do, all of which convey a sense of poverty. Patch is also used in a competitive sense, as in your patch versus my patch. As events unfold, Xiao’s spot comes under threat from another homeless man whose size and belligerence are more than Xiao can face. I could have called the story Xiao’s Home or Xiao’s Street or Xiao’s Struggle but none of those words pack as much punch as the word patch.

Many writers settle for too little when choosing words. There’s an old adage: “Don’t say a bird, say a robin.” I think it’s better to paint a bigger, more detailed picture in the reader’s mind by being specific rather than generic.

So instead of using the word shoes, try  joggers, brogues, sneakers, stilettos or Nikes and let the shoes reveal something about the character. If you write he looked down at his shoes it just conveys a simple action, but if you write he looked down at his sneakers it conveys something about the character along with the action.

Verbs are often neglected when it comes to finding something with more punch. Instead of using the word put, try slipped, eased, shoved, crammed. If you write she put the letter in her pocket it’s just another simple action, but if you write she shoved the letter in her pocket there’s an added layer of meaning about how she feels about the letter.

Any added meaning within a single word is very satisfying to the reader because it enlarges the picture in the reader’s mind and it often raises questions for the reader to mull over.

One author who does this to an amazing degree is Tim Winton. He rarely uses complex words, instead he finds simple words that punch way above their weight. In one of his short stories in The Turning, he has a scene in which two brothers are surfing when a shark moves in. One of the brothers is taken by the shark and his surfboard tombstones out of the water. That word tombstones creates a very accurate picture of what a board looks like when it’s upended and shoots up out of the water, minus the surfer. On top of that, the use of tombstones conveys a sense of death without having to spell out the possibility the surfer might die. The whole story has an underlying theme of death, so it’s even more powerful in reiterating the idea behind the story. One word, many layers. Bravo Tim Winton!

When I find a word that punches above its weight, I use it sparingly. In my story Xiao’s Patch, the word patch only appears in the title and twice in the text. That’s because a powerful word sticks in the reader’s mind and any overuse would reduce its effectiveness. It’s like a little splash of red that catches your eye in a painting full of yellows and blues. It’s the little that stands out a lot. Too many red splashes and the effect is ruined.

Some words become overused, especially in the media, and begin to punch well below their weight. I avoid those. I won’t use delicious unless it has something to do with eating and I won’t call anything sexy if it doesn’t have genitals. And I definitely don’t describe a raft of anything unless it’s floating on water. When a word is overused, it loses its power and only serves as padding in the story. That’s just irritating for the reader.

I’m forever jotting down words that catch my ear or eye. I might not use them straight away but I like to collect simple words that punch above their weight. I like to let them float around in my head, waiting for the right spot in a story where they will sit comfortably, more than earning their worth.