Let’s Begin Again

So my new job sent me on a trip to Salt Lake City for a lot of team building and academic meetings and whatnot. There were buttons and glowsticks and sledges (long story), but there was also a great motivational speaker who spoke about the power of play. Now, I’m pretty cynical about these types, but this guy, Kevin Carroll, really walked the walk, doing a lot of charity work around the world.  He said that the types of games we played as children are the kinds of work we tend to pursue as adults. So if you liked to tinker with tools, you might work with your hands as a carpenter, play war and you might be a military analyst or a cutthroat corporate strategist, paint and maybe you’ll be an artist. For me, more than anything else, I loved playing out in the woods pretending with my friends. Do you remember when that travesty of a film Robin Hood came out in the 90s? I didn’t care that Kevin Costner had a midwestern accent or that Bryan Adams kind of sucks, for that whole summer my friends and I were the merry fucking band of thieves, chasing each other through the bracken and storming Nottingham castle (in reality, a storm sewer) with our fake bows and arrows. This kind of role play enchanted me as a child, but as I grew older it secretly embarrassed me, too. There was something strange about a thirteen year old girl going off to the woods to sing Les Mis tunes, pretending to be Eponine prancing on the barricades. It got weird, you know?

But now in my 30s, sort of rediscovering myself as a writer, I feel like every time I sit down to my laptop, I’m transported back to those strange beginnings. A medieval sort of world with poets and thieves, princesses and dragons. The stories unfold as they did back then, bossy-pants me dictating the terms (“You’re going to be the Sheriff today, you’ll be Will Scarlett, you’ll be Donatello from the Ninja Turtles, you’ll be Leetah from Elfquest), and then letting it all play out beneath the dappled light of the forest. When people wonder how I can stay up writing after working full-time and taking care of two kids, I have to chuckle to myself. I love my job and I love my family, but writing is play to me. Sometimes it’s the most fun I will have all day.

I’m in the final throes of revising, taming that wild beast of a manuscript, trimming it down, setting up the pacing, developing that romantic tension, crossing my t’s, dotting my i’s with the world building. It’s all coming together, I think, after a year of relentless work. But what is not coming together is my beginning.

You see, once you have the situation and the characters, the plot follows a logic that builds on itself. One point of action leads to the next. There are consequences, people live and die, worlds rise and fall. And if you’re not sure what happens next, I take a page out of Donald Maass’ book and ask myself, “What’s the WORST thing that can happen right now?” And write that. Plot just isn’t a problem for me. I have a nasty little brain that can think of some pretty horrible situations for my characters to get mixed up in. You should have seen what my girl posse did to poor Alan Rickman back in the day (Die Sheriff! Die!).

But this beginning to my novel…guys…I’ve written this beginning a million times! No, not a million, but it’s felt that way, each revision more inauthentic than the last. Oh, for a while it will sound nice and good, but each time I send it out, I get those little gnawing critiques: not enough voice, I’m not connecting with the character in the beginning, too much information, these first pages aren’t making me care enough. You know those comments.

What makes beginnings so hard is that they have to say everything and nothing. They have to grab your readers and throw them into a foreign country without a guidebook.  Instead of searching for the quickest exit, a good beginning will want to make them stay, have a nice meal, strike up a conversation with a local, explore the crowded streets, put down some roots, fall in love maybe.  Good beginnings are their own dimensions of possibility, where a reader sees a thousand parallel worlds stretching out before them but seems inevitably drawn down one path.  And that’s the path of your beloved character, who, for whatever reason, got thrown into some weird shit.

I have found that with every beginning I’ve written, I’ve discovered new things about my character and my world–the bond between her and her professors, her love for the Irish language.  i know she loves AC/DC, bites her nails, and curses like a sailor.  I know that for whatever reason the book she is transcribing is changing and small objects around her tend to fly around by themselves whenever she has a slight emotional outburst.  I know that she grieves for a friend, and I know she is lonely.  I know she dreams for something beyond the circumstances of her childhood, and that she thinks books can save her. All of these things are important, but is this where our story begins?

When I look back at those hours in the woods, it’s hard to remember what instances set us barreling through the trees, all shouting and calling out plot twists. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about agents and market trends and return to that place of possibilities, remember what got the story going in the first place.

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