My friend — also a freelance writer and editor — has a thing about introductions and conclusions. She hates them. She frequently tells me she’d pay someone to handle that part if she could figure out how to make it lucrative and easy.
While I don’t hate intros in nonfiction writing — I’m actually pretty good at them — her feelings about beginnings and endings resonate with me when it comes to fiction. And I had a recent experience at a convention that both increased my fear of beginnings and provided an epiphany that made me better able to start a story without listening to that constant voice of doubt.
I attended Mysticon in Roanoke, VA, in February 2019. It was my first time attending any such event related to writing, and I went by myself. As an introvert with social anxiety, those facts alone set me on edge.
But I made a commitment to myself (and my husband, who was keeping our 3-year old all weekend so I could attend panels and workshops) to step out of my comfort zone, have new experiences and learn more about the craft of writing and the business of publishing. Which is how I found myself sitting in a small writing workshop on Saturday morning, texting my intro-and-conclusion-hating friend about how big of a mistake this all probably was.
I actually didn’t know anything about the workshop or what to expect other than you didn’t have to show up with anything already written. The basics of the workshop turned out to be this:
- You had 10 minutes to write a 100-word start to a story.
- The rules were: include a hook that incorporated a person/character, an event/something happening, and tension.
- Each person read his or her words aloud in turn.
- A panel of five professional writers/editors gave a critique of how well the writing did the job required (to hook the reader).
You might think you see my dilemma. A writer who fears beginnings in a workshop where the task is to write THE beginning. The hook. The thing many stories live and die by.
And that was certainly a challenge. I didn’t quite nail it. My hook, agreed the entire panel, was lacking in tension.
In actuality, though, my anxiety about social situations eclipsed my issues with beginnings, so I was more perturbed with the number of the people in the room. I handle this type of thing very well in a familiar environment, but this was not that. So I spent most of the time with my hands in my sleeves and my sleeves in my mouth — a tried and true coping mechanism for me. My nervousness wasn’t really about five people about to judge my writing. I write for a living, and I’ve had much less kind people judge my words.
I pushed through the social anxiety and it was a great experience overall. I got to hear everyone else’s hooks and the panel’s comments, which was more valuable than hearing just the comments on my own writing. I came away with some great notes on what makes a strong hook and how beginnings of stories should look.
But that’s not the most valuable thing I took out of that experience. If the only value I got out of that two-hour workshop was the knowledge that hooks were important and they needed to include x, y, and z, I’d be even more paralyzed by beginnings.
The real value for me was this epiphany:
The beginning that you write in the beginning isn’t the beginning you’re going to end up with when the story is done and as polished as you can make it.
Allen Wold, who led the workshop in question, has been leading some version of these workshops for 30+ years. He’s also a published author himself, and it’s safe to say he’s spent a good bit of time grappling with his own beginnings.
During all the reading of words and panel feedback, he repeatedly said things like “First draft. Rough draft. You’ll fix that later.”
The message was this: nothing is set in stone. You’re not tied to a single word that you put down on paper or in type. The goal isn’t a polished beginning. The goal is simply to BEGIN. Somewhere.
Write the best beginning you can with the white page glaring at you the way that it does. And just keep going from there. In the first draft of a story or novel, those first words count only in as much as they put your feet on the road.
Because in the end, what you thought was the first paragraph of your story may not even make the final cut.
But you can’t start cutting until you finish the draft. And you can’t finish the draft until you start. And you can’t start until you convince yourself the introduction doesn’t matter in the beginning.
You can get it all right in the end.