A famous dead Roman called Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, aka Quintilian, is attributed with the saying “whilst we deliberate how to begin a thing, it grows too late to begin it.” What crap. I am sick of ‘motivational’ quotes that just aren’t true, especially when they are regurgitated ad-nauseum by people who want to be writers but are too lazy to write.
We didn’t invent procrastination, or wishful thinking, or sluggardliness — they have been around since the dawn of time (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:4 “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.”) But we are modern masters at inventive excuses, and nobody explains it better than my favourite cartoon strip:
On the 21 December I will complete The Barrier Series. For all its faults, it will be done. The writing process for me was all about firsts — my first word and how it led to my first sentence. How that became a first paragraph, then a page, and suddenly a chapter. Then, assiduously ticking off the firsts, you suddenly find yourself on lasts. Last word, last sentence, last chapter, last edit, last chance!
You can provoke firsts artificially. You can be bold/suicidal and commit your life to your craft and resist the siren song of paid employment (and food), and hunger will sharpen your motivation. You can enter competitions, where deadlines may be enough to spur you into action. You can enroll in courses, and (like gym memberships) maybe the fear of wasting your money will prompt you to write. You could accept a dare, like I did, and write just to prove someone wrong. Who gives a shit! Just use whatever works to start, and the finishing will happen all by itself.
My first sentence (“The road curved like the arc between a woman’s collarbone and her nipple“) is deliberately provocative, and visual because that’s how I ‘see’ my story. I don’t paint with words so much as sketch them. I don’t describe the car the young lady drives, or the landscape she travels through, or her horrible final moments–we’ve all seen an old Ford, we can all imagine a desert at night. It’s not my job to spell it out: I give ten percent, the reader brings ninety.
A good first sentence could be all you need to write The Book. How will you know until you try? Here’s five first sentences that made me want to keep reading, which I’d argue also made the author’s want to keep writing.
“Garp’s mother, Jenny fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre.” –John Irving, The World According to Garp.
“He sat at his desk, wearily watching the children file out of the room, reflecting that, this term at least, it was reasonable to assume that none of the girls were pregnant.” –Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright.
“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.” –Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.
“You’ve been here before.” –Stephen King, Needful Things.