I don’t understand the creative process, and I’m really pretty fine with that. I don’t need to understand it to benefit from it, to experience it, to curse it, to love it, to lose sleep over it, to live with it. You’ve got all these artists out here, all these writers and musicians and painters, and where does the spark come from? The initial idea, the first spark? Where do you begin?
Mine’s an image. I get a picture stuck in my head and it nags me and won’t go away until I write it down. And often once I’ve got the ball rolling, it just keeps going – usually somewhere relatively unrelated to what I started with, unless I’m exceptionally lucky. A manuscript I finished in October started with the image of a young Canadian woman walking a Siberian Husky. Why Canadian? I don’t have a clue, but that’s what she had to be. It turned into 66,000 words with a plotline involving archaeologists, murder, a history professor, werewolves, zombies, sexual tension, and a dude named Victor.
And how did THAT happen? God, I haven’t the foggiest. And I might even go back and revise it at some point. But most likely it’ll be lost in the annals of my computer and someday I’ll look back on it and giggle, which is what I do with most of the stuff I haven’t looked at in years. Because there’s usually a reason I haven’t looked at it in years.
The manuscript I finished this month, however, began with a very specific image, born of RPG characters in a game that I loved but that sort of petered out sadly, and I knew – more or less – exactly where I was going through the whole thing. And perhaps that’s what made it successful. I know the process what goaded along by National Novel Writing Month, one of the most wonderful and the most stressful events in the whole world.
I’ll be honest. I’m really awesome at starting novels. What I’m terrible at, what I need the most work in, hands down, is ending the damn things. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on some family-based historical saga set in early twentieth century Ireland when I was in high school. Of course it never had an ending. It never had anything remotely resembling an ending, but it did have a beginning and lots and lots of middle. And was it good? No, almost certainly not, but I learned a lot from it. For instance, when people say, “write what you know,” I don’t think they necessarily mean that if you work in retail, you should only write about people who work in retail. I think they mean that if you haven’t had sex, don’t write a sex scene. Especially this, because most non-virgins can’t even write a realistic sex scene.
But it doesn’t always happen like this, with a specific image. Last night, lying in bed, a plot unfolded inside my head, to some kind of Civil War-era drama involving a husband and wife whose political views cause them to separate. And as for an opening scene? Not a clue.
I’m rambling. The point is, beginnings are important. Ask any agent. If something interesting doesn’t happen in about 1500 words, they’re over it and on to the next wad of paper. And openings matter to readers – if I read the back blurb of a book and I’m on the fence, I’ll read the first five pages, and if I like it, I buy it. If it makes me laugh, makes me turn pages, makes me cringe, I buy it. Hell, if I just like the writing style, I’ll buy it.