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 …