The first sentence is the hardest

I am a writer who has no interest in plotting his novels before he starts to write them. I like to be in the reader’s shoes, fascinated by developments. It is a way of entertaining myself, as I hope the reader is entertained. I allow the characters to surprise me as I hope they will surprise my reader. They have me laugh and cry and take me on their rollercoaster ride as they would you when reading the finished work. I run with my creations, listen to them talk to me as I write their words; sometimes amazed at what they say, often staggered at what they do, and by the course a life takes. I seemingly do little but follow them. But they are creating the plot for me, giving us their story as I report what goes on in each picture in my head; sewing it all together. I have very clear visual imagery, so description isn’t a problem. Creating the character isn’t a problem, in fact, it seems that he creates himself – initially as a cartoon – but that’s alright with me. I can always sketch in more detail should I feel it needed, but often I leave them to appear as they arrived in my head – seemingly from nowhere. Oddly, they very often arrive with a name stitched to them, and I rarely change that given name. So, even though I start without plot, I watch the characters creating their story for me, developing themes, creating their own psychologies, and philosophies, evolving their lives. Again it is odd that I am unable to do this outside of the writing process. To be honest I wouldn’t know where to begin. I have no concept of the characters unless, as it used to be, I had pen in hand or as I am now – sitting at the keyboard.

Working as I do I find the most difficult thing is to get started. I don’t mean that I am blocked. I don’t believe there to be such a thing as writer’s block. I think there is only fear; fear that the writing will be not good enough, that what we produce will be unacceptable. That we shall fail. Somebody once wrote that the art of writing is the ability to attach the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I think that just about sums it up; sit down, stay there, stop worrying and write. You are bound to produce something, and the worst it can be is a very bad piece of writing. So what! If you are any good the next day will show improvement. And the more often you try it, the more improvement there will be. If you want to write, you must commit yourself to writing. No, what I mean about getting started is that for all of those who do not plot the book, the first sentence is the hardest simply because we are writing both from and into a void. There is no clue as to what the sentence should be about. I usually find my first sentence is a line of what could be poetry. I think it’s a matter of recognising the rhythm. Because the mind at that stage should be empty of ideas, devoid of words, one becomes aware of rhythm which hums along a while, then is suddenly embellished by words. I can well remember when I sat down to write ‘Doves and Silk Handkerchiefs’, and out of the rhythm in my head I wrote the sentence ‘My great-great grandmother who was born on the day of the battle of Waterloo slowly climbed the slope of Hunger Hill’. It took a while to appear but once written it was never changed. And all followed from that. No longer writing from the void, sentence follows sentence, Idea follows idea, and so your novel grows.


One thought on “The first sentence is the hardest

  1. Your example is terrific but it doesn’t show how to express dialogue. Although the character is talking to you/himself, he is not engaged in a conversation where you might find yourself writing stuff like, “he said”, “she replied haughtily”, &c.

    It could be said that your example is an instance of a kind of description rather than an instance of a dialogue. The late Elmore Leonard was said to be a master of dialogue. How is this done?


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