This month’s guest post is by Judy Waite, award-winning author of over 40 titles ranging from picture books to Young Adult and crossover novels. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and specialises in creative workshops for all ages, with a focus on immersive and interactive experiences. Judy is bringing her one-hour workshop, ‘Lost Stories’, to this year’s Festival on Saturday 20 June.
I’ve had four ideas already today. Well, not so much ideas, but potential first lines for novels. I often think in that ‘first line’ way. If you speak to me (in real life) I may find myself catching part of your conversation. Or a detail about the way you move. What you’re wearing. Forgive me if I suddenly hurry away, rooting through my bottomless pit of a bag for pen and paper. It really was something you said.
These are my today ‘beginnings’:
I can’t leave my house … not anymore.
In my head I heard a picture.
Imagine moonshine, in a jar.
The dogs were bizarre, and beautiful.
OK, maybe not punch-you-between-the-eyes genius, but with each one I can feel the story hanging off the end of it. Teetering. If I dived in off one of those first lines, I sort of know where I would swim.
But then … which one is it worth getting wet for?
I might prefer one to the other but is the preferred one commercial enough? Do I care about it being commercial? Surely, the best place to write from is from the heart. The soul. At least I get to enjoy it then. But then again, what’s the point in writing something no one else would want to read? It might take me two years, pouring words down a black hole. My heart and soul down there, a dusting of earth already covering them over.
Too many ideas can cause as many blocks as no ideas at all. The head buzzes with flies around the honey pot of imagination. In the end, sometimes, it’s easier to do nothing. A thousand stories left unwritten.
I know this isn’t just my dilemma – I hear it from all sorts of students, of all sorts of ages. ‘Which idea shall I choose?’
They want a magic answer. Of course they do. I want one too.
But even if there was to be that starry explosion of sudden certainty, the idea is only part of it. Some of the most trivial-sounding ideas can make an astonishing story if the ‘voice’ is right. Some dazzling possibilities sound great coming out the creator’s mouth, or as a punchy plot – but then somehow they die on the page. The language is too rich, or too sparse. It doesn’t build. It doesn’t go anywhere.
So let’s take the premise that to some extent, it doesn’t matter which of my four beginnings I choose, as long as I can work on them and take them somewhere else.
So I’ll choose one randomly. Dispense with the dilemma. I will lean on fate and faith. I write them on scraps of paper. Fold them up, juggle them like dice in my palm, then, eyes closed, I pick one out.
In my head, I heard a picture …
Not the one I wanted – in truth, probably the one that felt the least promising. But a little brainstorming is a wonderful thing.
An artist? Psychic? Crime
SECRETS Locked room Castle Deserted beach
Scraps of paper to the ready again, eyes closed. I give myself some rules and, as in all good fairy-tales, I’m allowed to choose three.
I pick out: artist SECRETS Deserted beach
I do the same again with character. Boy Girl Man Woman
I pick out: Boy
Still laying all my trust in fate and faith, and without a backward glance at the other options I scribble down a rough outline – where might I go with this? It comes through faster than I’d expected.
I have a boy – someone who has been in trouble a lot at school and who struggles with verbal communication, but is brilliant at art. Only he paints places from memory, and paints them perfectly, in every detail. One day a young woman goes for a walk along the beach and never comes back. Amidst the inevitable media clamour, my boy paints the beach, and adds in a detail which has never been discussed on the news. His step-father, with whom he has a fraught relationship, sees the painting and recognises it as the area that has been so recently in the news. He contacts the police, and explains about the detail. My boy isn’t great at communicating, and he is unable to explain where he himself was, at the time the woman disappeared.
Weird that lots of the other things are connecting too, but that’s imagination for you. Imagination is where the magic is. And now, with my faith in fate, I’m ready to go…
Of course, if you’re not a ‘first line’ magpie like me, there are plenty of other ways to experiment with this. Try working with random lines from existing novels. Snatches of conversation. Newspaper headlines. Even seemingly mundane notices and street signs can trigger a whole story. Danger. Do Not Enter. Beware Children.
But maybe these are worthy of a whole other blog – and a whole different story.