After I type the last sentence of a manuscript, I have no idea what to do next. So I return to the beginning of the project I just completed and toy with it. I run a spell and grammar check. I fiddle with the chapter titles. And, in fussy mode, I review my characters to make sure I haven’t inadvertently used too many names that start with the same letter. Though this seems superficial, having a cast consisting of Donald, Daisy, Dick, and Drew can be a distraction.
But eventually, though I will long for the familiarity of the finished book and the friends I made there, I must say good-bye and move on.
I tuck the finished work into a file and pull up a white screen. I stare at it for a while, then play a few games of solitaire. For the next few writing sessions, I allow myself to mourn the loss. Solitaire, blank page, solitaire, blank page.
After a few days of this wasteful floundering, I apply a rule, a game of sorts, in which I’m not allowed to push away from the computer until I’ve written something. If I produce no more than a single sentence, at least I’ll have something to get me started the next morning.
Here is an opening that started that way—no story, simply a description of a room that came clearly to mind. I wrote it up and left the computer. Then I spent the day looking forward to returning to it because it wasn’t only about the setting; it was also about the main character, Karen:
Saturday morning, ten o’clock. The strategy room on the DA’s floor of the Caprock Tri-County Courthouse, a corner chamber made inharmonious by the sort of imperfections that make me squirm—a landscape hanging crookedly, a bank of cabinets with two drawers not quite closed, a set of blinds with an uneven slat.
The fact that a few wrongly situated items caused Karen to squirm told me that this was a character I could work with. I imagined a woman with OCD, under constant assault as she navigated her way through a day. To what degree did her OCD affect her relationships and her work? How did she react when she came upon a filthy counter or a misplaced item at the super market? Also, there was the inevitable question—why is Karen at the DA’s office on a Saturday morning? I had to continue writing to find out.
A time or two, while fretting over getting a new project off the ground, a character has leapt, fully formed, onto the blank screen. A rare gift, this occurrence renders a plot in which the character calls the shots. From the opening of Old Buildings in North Texas, meet Olivia:
Before they’d let me out of rehab someone had to agree to act as my legal custodian. There it is, the snappy truth about why, at the age of thirty-two, I live with my mother. She now has control over every aspect of my life, from my finances to my laundry. One little cocaine-induced heart attack and it’s back to my childhood to start over.
From the moment of her arrival, Olivia pleased me. I knew the color of her hair, her build, and her background. She was furious with herself over her mistakes, and she was admirably devious. She was resourceful and witty. She was arrogant, bitter, and empathetic. She lived with me for a year, and I miss her.
When a starter idea simply isn’t there, I often rely on the most universal topic there is—the weather. This first paragraph is set in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston:
It’s so humid outside that the air molecules are sweating. The sky is churning and burdened, filled with smudged shades of gray. I didn’t realize it was so stormy. I’ll be racing the rain throughout my entire run.
Is a stormy day interesting enough to pull a reader in? I’m not sure. But an interesting facet of the narrator’s character is found in the last sentence: she is such a slave to her exercise routine that she’s willing to go for a run in a storm. In fact, this discipline eventually reveals a well-meaning martinet, a woman so obsessed with propriety and procedures that she’s unable to communicate with people who aren’t as exacting as she is.
Here’s another kickoff containing weather:
Eddie steps outside the store when the rain begins. There isn’t a cloud in sight, hasn’t been all day. In fact, the sky is so bright and clear that just looking at it causes his eyes to water. The downfall stops as suddenly as it started and, to his delight, the eastern sky presents a double rainbow. You don’t see that every day and he takes it as a sign that something good is about to happen.
But the next thing that happens is the opposite of good—Eddie’s ex-wife shows up.
In Why Stuff Matters, I opened using both factors—the capricious weather and a strong, fully defined personality, Jessica, a grieving widow in charge of the elderly concessionaires in an antique mall. Here’s her voice:
My antique mall is the only building in this part of town that has a basement, so as soon as our county is included in the tornado warning that streams across the bottom of the television screen, I tromp down to the main floor from my third floor living quarters, unlock the front door, and prepare to be overrun for the fourth time this month.
The first chapter ends with Jessica, the main character, standing just inside her glass storefront as she watches a tornado destroy the apartment complex across the street. It’s a dramatic opening that morphs elegantly, unexpectedly, and humorously into a microcosmic revelation concerning humankind’s grasping nature.
It was a pleasure to write about and come to know Jessica. Why Stuff Matters is an unusual and entertaining read, which I think you’ll enjoy.