Several years ago, I was with a friend when she decided to assemble an elliptical trainer – a gift for her father. I thought she was nuts and needed to put Santa’s elves on her speed dial (I’m not an assembly-required kind of girl either),but then I became fascinated by her process. First, she unpacked the box . Big pieces of steel went to one side. All of the little packets of nuts and screws and bolts to another. I would have bailed at this point. The sheer number of pieces was daunting. I would have hired the nearest elf, headed for the patio and a bottle of wine, and waited for him to tell me it was finished. Not my friend. She calmly checked the bits and bobs against the packing list. Literally checked them –she put a tidy check mark on the page next to each item as she identified it, and then placed it in order on a white bed sheet (so she could see them better, she said). Then she read the directions. Thoroughly. And only then did she begin to assemble. Piece by piece by piece by piece, the elliptical trainer took form and is still in use today (Or until last week anyway, when her 78-year-old father fell out of a tree. That’s a whole nother story. Let’s just say he’s going to be fine but probably won’t be using the exercise equipment – or climbing trees – for a good while.)
So what does any of this have to do with writing? Well, the process for starters (pun intended). I know writers who outline and tack color-coded note cards to their walls. Others, like me, just start writing without a clue as to where the story and its characters will take them, hoping that we all end up someplace good. But there is a second aspect to “starting” as well. If we have developed our characters well, then they have pasts and futures. Our job is to find their “now.” We all have that relative who when asked a simple question will drone on and on before getting to the point. A book that started with the protagonist’s birth and plodded through day after year after decade would be a real snoozer.
I struggled with this in my novel, Mothers and Other Liars. A key incident happens ten years ago, and I tried writing a decade’s worth of pages of Ruby’s life before I figured out where her story should start. Many times in my critique group someone has suggested to another writer that the story should start sooner or (more often) later along a winding road. Sometimes we may write a couple of hundred pages that end up as mere backstory, reduced in the final draft to a sprinkling of sentences here and there.
Despite Julie Andrews’ lovely singing, starting at the very beginning is not always the best place to start. Sometimes it’s screaming at us in bright neon lights; sometimes we have to dig and sift and trash pages of writing that we think are particularly good. But we have to find that “now”.
Amy Bourret is the author ofMothers and Other Liars.
She’s currently working on her next “now.”