Writing Wednesday — All Beginnings Are Hard

Leslie’s desk

“All beginnings are hard.”

That’s the first line of In the Beginning by Chaim Potok, whose novels I have long adored. (I heard him speak at the Sophomore Literary Festival at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, and he was as compelling on stage as on the page.)

I can only imagine how many times Potok rewrote that line. Maybe he wrote the entire book, realized what it was about, and only then knew how it started. Or maybe he knew it right from (sorry) the beginning.

I’m writing this as I start a new novel. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, getting started can be scary. What if this isn’t where the story starts? What if you guess wrong and have to redo, revise, cut?

There’s no “what if” about it. It’s a given. To some degree or another, you will do just that.

So I want to say this: All beginnings are hard. Don’t feel yours needs to be perfect. All it has to do is get you going and propel you to the next scene. Jane Smiley says all first drafts are perfect because they give you something to work with. I feel the same about beginnings. They get you in gear. I can just about guarantee that even if you keep the same basic opening, as I have for most of my books, you will revise those first few pages more than almost any others. There is always something to change, to reflect the way the story or a character evolved. To set the right tone. To foreshadow the future danger or connect with the ending. Sometimes we start with what we the writer need to know, and only later discover that’s not where the reader needs to start.

It’s okay to poke your opening a bit, to write it then reread it the next day, sharpening the imagery and brightening the voice, to give yourself the confidence that you really do have something to work with.

Then move on.

As David, the main character in Potok’s novel says, beginnings are hard because you are learning a new way of understanding. That’s true of writing a novel, isn’t it? You are meeting new characters, learning their problems and personalities, their joys and sorrows. You are figuring out what to say and how to say it. As David says, “Especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”

You are writing a book that never existed before. You are making something new. No wonder it’s hard. But it’s exciting, too. Let your enthusiasm carry you. Let the joy guide your hand. Let the beginning be what it needs to be right now; you can always change it. That’s the advantage you have, when you are a novelist making the beginning by yourself.