In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, one of the characters, Joseph Grand, a middle-aged man in a government job, is writing–or attempting to write–a book. What gets in his way is that, as a perfectionist, he can’t seem to get the first sentence written to his satisfaction. So, he revises and rewrites it–over and over. For many writers, it is hard to get beyond that first paragraph because it is important. Frequently, concern over how to “start the book” crowds out great plot ideas or scenes that, if neglected, will become stale or forgotten.
I’d planned my first few blog entries to be on other writing topics, but, while eating a banana-walnut muffin at a hotel snack bar in Charleston, SC this past weekend, I began chatting with a man on the next stool. He is currently an executive who not only amassed several impressive degrees, but played a mean game of football. He said he’d been an English major in college. Talk turned to writing and what it took to write a novel. More specifically, where to begin.
My suggestion to him–and advice to myself–was to quit worrying about the first paragraph, first page, even the first chapter. True, they eventually have to be as good as you and all your rewriting can make them, but for the moment, what is the story you want to tell?
Sometime in the late 1990s, I picked up a copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields. I was fascinated by the way she skipped from decade to decade, played with perspective, switched time and setting, and threw in newspaper announcements and other interesting bits germane to the story. And–it all worked so well!
I was putting together a nonfiction book at the time, and it was a liberating experience to see how interesting a book could be when the author strayed from a conventional, chronological format. My nonfiction book therefore has poetry, photos, and narratives. I’ve Carol’s work to thank for it.
So, back to that first paragraph. My advice to the gentleman at the snack bar was to develop characters, write scenes, write dialogue, write description. It doesn’t matter if it is only a few words, a few sentences, a few paragraphs. Write when the idea pops into your head. It’s hot and fresh then, and you will never write it quite so well six weeks later.
Keep writing until you have a collection, then sort it into an order that tells your story. If some don’t fit, save for another time. All you have to do to get started with your novel is know the story you want to tell.
How do you handle the first paragraph dilemma?