As you can imagine, wherever I go, people ask me, “Brad, what’s the secret of your success as a blogger?”
Okay, no one’s ever asked me that. Actually, I was sitting here, struggling to think of what to write next. I’ve just called on a time-tested technique: I asked a question. I didn’t know the answer, but asking it gave me a specific task: I had to come up with a response. This is known in the trade as “self-interrogation,” or, in another more common phrase, “a cheap literary trick.”
Putting that first line — even the first word — on the page makes all the difference.
Did all the great writers of history have their books planned in advance, start to finish, first line to last? I mean the giants: Tolstoy, Austen, Harold Robbins.
No. Not at all. Take Homer, about 3,000 years ago. He goes to a friend of his who can write (Homer was blind) and says, “Man, I’ve got this bitchin’ idea! Write this down.” (I’m translating from the classical Greek here.)
His buddy grabs some parchment and a stylus and says, “Shoot.”
“Okay,” Homer says and takes a stance, spreads his arms and declaims
Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature.
The friend scribbles and says, “Okay, got it. Go on.”
“Whaddya mean, ‘Go on?’ That’s it. I’ve invented literature!”
His friend sez: “It’s okay as a start, but where’s the character, setting, the plot, conflict, the love interest? Where’s the story, man? No publisher is going to touch this.”
And that’s how literature, criticism and the killer opening line were all born the same day.
Or take ol’ Herm Melville, sitting in his classroom, hating his teaching gig, bored out of his gourd. He dreamed of getting on one of those whaling ships, but was stuck there, supposedly grading papers, but mostly doodling. He was writing down funny names to give his fellow teachers: “Call me Budd, Billy Budd …” “Call me Omoo …” “Call me Ishmael …. Hey, wait….” All it took was that first line.
A lot gets said about the so-called “writing process.” Every publication for writers devotes at least three articles to what “successful” authors do in their writing “process.” It usually boils down to:
1. Sit in chair.
2. Take pen in hand/turn on computer.
3. Write words on page/screen.
4. Read what you’ve written.
6. Repeat until finished.
Unfortunately, the writers of these articles omit a critical and necessary step between #2 and #3. Call it step 2a:
There are other terms for this step: dismay, fear, terror, disgust, horror, despair.
You see, not only is there nothing on the page, there’s nothing in the writer’s brain.
Here’s the thing:
Don’t give us “process;” we writers need some gosh-darned ideas.
Hemingway called looking at that empty page “facing the white bull.” Well, that guy pulled off howlers like that all the time about his “writing process” and people accepted it. As if sitting at a desk in a broom closet on the top floor of an apartment in Paris wearing his boxer shorts were equivalent to facing a bull in the arena in Madrid. Really, Hem.
I can just imagine saying to The Counselor after coffee some morning, “I’m going into my office to face the White Bull.” And I can hear the derisive laughter.
Common things authors do when they reach step 2a. include crying, cursing, perspiring, consuming alcohol or drugs or suddenly remembering that they need replacement vacuum cleaner bags and driving to Pasadena to get them.
However, there’s a secret body of first-line techniques the editors of “Writer’s Digest” never share, because it’s too valuable to give away: They keep it for themselves. Here at Under Western Skies, though, we share. I’ve already given you one, the self-interrogation.
In medias res
Throw something outrageous, inexplicable or mysterious down on the page, whatever comes to mind, however nonsensical or outrageous. Then make up whatever’s required to make sense of it.
Thomas Pynchon relied on this trick back in the late 60s when he was starting his monumental Gravity’s Rainbow. He was sitting in that apartment in Manhattan Beach, with a great view of the Pacific, with bupkis on the page. He wrote,
A screaming comes across the sky.
Then he had to start figuring out what was screaming. Turns out, what was screaming was a Nazi V2 rocket falling on London. Or maybe it was vast, inexplicable mythic figures hovering in the sky just beyond the view of human beings. Or both. 800 pages later, he had one of the great books of the 20th Century.
The Twist or Deus ex machina
In this case, you’ve actually put something on the page, but you’re stuck at some point. This only happens to most writers occasionally … say, every five to eight minutes. The Twist takes as its raison d’etre Whitman’s oft-quoted line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
Twisting injects some new factor into a situation so that almost anything can happen, and hitherto unknown persons, forces, facts or influences just gosh-darned show up. Like this:
Peonie is in her dressing room. Her one-woman show about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (she played all 123 women) has just closed in its first week. She can’t pay her rent or her credit card balance and her ailing mother’s chihuahua needs psychotherapy. What will she do?
Suddenly the door bursts open and in storms Victor, the hitherto unnoticed assistant stage manager.
Vic declares that he’s always loved Peonie. He steps toward her and reveals ….
A. His chiseled abs
B. A tattoo of her name on his arm (misspelled)
C. His long-concealed love of kittens
D. His Swiss bank account balance
E. His royal pedigree
Any one of those options will get you through the next thousand words, easy.
Begin at the End (Flashback/Flash Forward)
In some cases, an author already knows how the book will end: knows exactly who committed the murder, why and how; who ends up with whom; and who goes to jail and who walks free. The problem is, there’s no beginning: nada, zilch. How to start?
It’s extreme, but sometimes it’s best to just start with the conclusion: the private eye standing there in the old oilfield at the scene of the murder and the evidence right there in front of her, or the defense lawyer walking out of the courtroom, with everything tidied up. Your reader is dying to know how she got there. It’s a risky gambit, but you can certainly think of a book you’ve read that used it.
James Joyce pulled a neat trick with this one. After devoting a big chunk of his life to writing Ulysses, he had an idea for an even more massive and impenetrable book, which he called Work in Progress, but it was so daunting that he was darned if he could figure out where to start. So he wrote one sentence:
Down by the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
And then — get this — he split the sentence. He made “Down by the” the END of the book and started it with “riverrun.” Certainly the most commodius vicus of recirculation in the history of literature. And with that, Finnegan’s Wake had both its beginning and ending.
Now you know. “The Writer” magazine won’t tell you. You heard it here first. Go get started.
© 2016 Brad Nixon