The Process of Writing: The Art of Beginning

For years I’ve kept notebooks filled with ideas. Snippets of stories. Small tales of wonder hoping to grow into full-fledged books.

All of these stories have had to wait, simply because I didn’t know how to begin. The idea of being a writer was so big, so unfathomable, that I let it overwhelm me. How could I possibly turn an idea into a story, let alone a novel?

I realized the only way to become a writer is to start writing.

But how to begin?

I really had no idea. It was about this time that I’d heard about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Participants from around the world sign up for the challenge of writing fifty thousand words over the month of November. It is a personal challenge, one where you compete only with yourself. A friend of mine had participated the previous year and recommended it. I had to give it a try.

I opened my notebook of ideas. Inside was the bare-bones of a story that had come to me when I was driving through the Arizona desert. I remember how the idea had sparked to life as I drove down the highway, the stars flaring in the desert sky above me. I couldn’t write any of it down (I was behind the wheel), but the characters and their desires burned inside me for days, refusing to leave me alone until I committed them to paper.

Eight years later I got to work.

November 1st, 2013. My toddler was asleep. Balanced on my lap was a new notebook and a pen that I had purchased in Tokyo. The perfect device to hold new worlds, new beginnings. I began to write.

Words flowed from the tip of my pen. Sentences unfurled, stretching across one page, and then another. I didn’t know where the words came from. All of a sudden a new character appeared, one that hadn’t existed until he popped up on the page, demanding to be heard. While not a main character, he became vital to the telling of the tale. He stole the scene. He was perfect.

I came to a stop an hour or so later. It was well past midnight, and I had eighteen handwritten pages. Want to know the crazy thing? Much of what I wrote that night hasn’t changed, even after several drafts and countless rewrites. I realized then that I was up for the NaNoWriMo challenge. I committed myself to writing fifty thousand words in thirty-one days, and I wasn’t going to give up.

The month of NaNo taught me a lot. It taught me to just write even when I didn’t think I could, to allow the words to flow.

By the end of the month, I had sixty-seven thousand words written. I kept going.

Four months later, I had a completed first draft. It was a monster at over 130,000 words, and it was dreadful. Still, I wasn’t going to give up. I went back through my manuscript and reworked my outline, cutting scenes and rewriting chapters entirely. I revised. Then I revised again. I read books on the craft of writing. I applied what I learned. I revised again. I had the absolute best Beta readers and CP partners. Their notes and critiques were invaluable. I applied what I learned from them, revised, and worked in new scenes.

I joke now that I wrote the book three times. But it isn’t a joke. I really did scrap everything and rewrite the book three times. And I loved every minute of it.

“Great is the art of beginning”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Books on writing that I’ve found helpful:

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

The Aspects of a Novel by E.M. Forster

The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein 

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams

Wonderbook, the Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell 

The Power of Myth, the transcript of an interview with Joseph Campbell

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