But it’s not as easy as just jumping in and writing. Because before you can really get into the flow of it, the pattern of hammering out a few pages every day, the immersion in the story, you have to write the first page.
And before the first page, the first paragraph.
And before the first paragraph, the first sentence.
You hear it all the time — that the first sentence, paragraph, page are the most important parts. That readers will judge you solely on that beginning, decide whether or not to keep reading, to buy the book. That — even worse* — publishers may not even read past the first page if they haven’t been hooked by then.
But that can be fixed in subsequent drafts. The reader, the publisher — you shouldn’t be worried about them at all in the first draft. That first page, the start of your novel, is all-important because of the impression it gives someone else:
The start of the novel, the first page, sets the tone in your mind for everything that is to follow. If you lose a strong voice partway through, you can fix that later, but if you don’t start with a strong voice, you’re walking to 100,000 words blind. If you get stuck on a scene partway through, you can skip it and come back. But if you don’t have your first line — to my mind, anyway — you just can’t carry on. It defines everything that comes after, contextualizes every word you put on the page.
I wanted Chapter 1 of Shadow of Death to start off with a light-hearted, somewhat humourous bang. Something that would suggest there were lighter tones to this, there would be humour and fun. Something to provide a real contrast for when things do get dark. It also needed to scream pirates, because it is, above all else, a pirate story. So I thought, I should start off right away with a pirate joke, or a pirate-themed limerick or something. Something the main character is telling a bar full of sailors.
Then I got stuck. I had to find a good pirate joke that would work in the context**, or I had to write a pirate limerick. A good one, too.
I think I spent two hours on it before I finally managed to craft the limerick that would open Chapter 1. I wnated to move on, to actually start writing. But until I had that opening — even though I knew what it would be, essentially — I just couldn’t. I’d be working blind, starting on a path without knowing where I was coming from.
So I agonized for two hours over it. But now that it’s done, I can move on. I can start writing my novel.
And so I’ve started. 100,000 words, here I come.
* I’m being a bit facetious. Of course I ultimately care more what my readers think than a publisher, but before I can get a book to the readers, a publisher has to be willing to put a bunch of money into it.
** I had the idea that I’d start with the joke, “How much did the pirate pay for his piercings? A buck an ear!” Which is a great pirate joke. It would even work if I just opened with the punchline, like we all came into the scene partway through, because a reader could figure out a) that it was a joke, b) that it was a pirate joke, and c) they could even reconstruct what the joke was, just from the punchline. The only problem: “buck” is a modern slang for a monetary unit that doesn’t even exist in the setting.