Getting Started

Can you remember the first time you thought about being a writer? Where were you the moment you thought, I could write a story? What were you doing when the dream, the possibility, and the desire struck you?

About once a decade, I come across a student whose parent is a writer and has been a sufficient influence to motivate the student to take up the writing craft.

But where do the rest of us come from?

I find the majority of fledgling writers to be like those clueless civilians in science-fiction films from the 1950s. Going about their ordinary lives with no inkling that a flying saucer is about to swoop through the skies and hover above them.

Zing! There’s the super-cosmic gamma-slamma ray bathing the next victim in eerie light. The energy beam soaks into the individual’s brain, filling it with imagination and wild thoughts that have never teemed there before.

When the attack is over, the person will never be the same. Now he or she is filled with a fiery new ambition–to write, to put words to the page, to bring story to the world, to live and breathe the tragedies and triumphs of imaginary characters.

Family and friends shake their heads, saying things like, “Zelda never wanted to write before. I wonder how long it’ll be before this fit wears off?”

Probably never. Zelda gets a laptop and taps out her first, wobbly few paragraphs.

To borrow from Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton and Billy Crystal’s film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN …

The night was … dark, moist, raining, bleak, drizzly, foggy, sultry, aromatic … AHA! The night was aromatic with the fragrance of … jasmine, petunias, coffee, burned toast, hot roof tar … AHA!

The night was … NO. That’s too much passive construction. Try again.

The night smelled of hot roof tar and laundry hung to dry on clotheslines strung between the buildings. Ella sat in her open window, yearning to catch the nonexistent breeze. Behind her, Cuthbert snored in his broken-down recliner. A half-drunk beer tilted in his slack fingers. She was counting the minutes, counting his snores, counting her heartbeat, and all the while she was wondering if this was the night she had enough courage to leave him and the kids. Just take his wallet and the car keys, and go.

Surprised at what has suddenly burst from her imagination, Zelda sits back and reads over this opening paragraph. Is it a story? Not yet. Not quite, but her instincts tell her something’s there. She’s got a character now, the miserable Ella who longs for escape. She’s got a place–dingy and unappealing, the kind of setting no one wants to be trapped in. That makes Ella sympathetic, except why would this woman leave her children? Or are they her children? What if they’re Cuthbert’s and he was married to Ella’s sister who died and Ella came to help for a few days but has become trapped here as Cuthbert’s drudge, guilted into staying on and on.

Um … maybe, but would it be a stronger story if Ella were the mother and seriously contemplating abandoning her own children? How can a mother do that? What would drive her to such a desperate measure? What kind of woman is Ella anyway?

So now, Zelda has a toehold in the precipice of this story. And if Zelda doesn’t reach for the “easy button” by copying the cheap tricks that sometimes pass for plotting in the worst television shows but continues to ask questions about her protagonist’s motivation and goals, then it’s possible a story will come of her efforts.

The more Zelda writes and drafts and strikes out and hits dead ends and tries again, the more she’ll learn. The more she’ll grow.

When you’re starting out to write your first story, or maybe your second or third or twentieth, you can’t expect perfection. Writers don’t whip out an ideal draft in ten minutes and then run around for the rest of the day, giving interviews and being glamorous.

Writers write. They keep gnawing at the bone that is their story project until they’re satisfied. They can comb through books on writing and blogs on writing. They can (and should) take classes on writing craft. They can ask questions of other, more-experienced writers. But in the end, they learn most about people, characters, motivations, and story events by putting themselves in their desk chair and beating at their story’s problems until they figure things out.

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