Page One, Chapter One. Again.

By John Gilstrap

You’d think I’d get used to it, sooner or later. With Hostage Zero in the can and due to arrive in stores in July, 2010, it’s time to push the elation and sense of accomplishment aside and get back to the business of writing another book. This will be Number Eight in my personal bibliography and Number Three in the Jonathan Grave series. I don’t have a title yet (regular readers of this blog know how titles do not come easily for me), but I know what the story will be.

This idea came to me out of nowhere—as they usually do—at a time when I was looking for one, and when it arrived, it came fast, in the form of a terrific opening set piece that ties into a very cool larger story. I even have the new characters well formed in my head. All of this after just a couple of days of development. We’re talking Writer Nirvanna here.

Given the above, you’d think that it would be a snap to sit down and start writing, wouldn’t you? Having done it so many times in the past and with relative success, you’d think that I’d be ready to start the coming journey at a dead run.

Not so. It’s the damn cursor. It mocks me.

I’m staring down the pipe at something like 120,000 words, and none of them are written yet. It’s all looking good in the outline, but I know that there are tough times coming–as they always do around page 200. I know that there will be some huge plot holes to be backfilled, and character motivations to be reconsidered. I know that I will, somewhere in the process, throw out several days’ or several weeks’ work because I will have surrendered to temptation and pursued a new angle on the story that proved to be a waste of time. It always happens, so I’ve come to accept it as part of my process.

I know that I am going to become obsessive, and that as my new deadline approaches, I will become a pain in the ass to live with. There’s a lot of frustration on the way, and I’m bringing all of it onto myself. At present, I’m out of contract, so it is within my power to simply fold up my laptop and not write a word.

Except I couldn’t do that.

You see, I’ve got this story in my head now. I see characters and conflict and compelling action sequences, and such images cannot be ignored. In nine months or a year, I will hold a stack of pages in which all of it will have come to life.

I know that about the time when Hostage Zero is hitting the stores, I will be more or less at the end of the new book, and, God willing, I’ll again experience the thrill of writing that favorite of all phrases, “The End”, only then to face the challenge of discovering my next idea.

It’s frightening to face all of that work, but I suppose that any new adventure should be a little unsettling. I think I know where I’m going, but I can never be sure. It’s damned exciting, when you think about it.

All I have to do is stuff some letters behind that incessantly blinking cursor.

What about you? Every writer, published or unpublished, faces this same challenge at the beginning of a new project. Any secrets to share? Any coping strategies to make it easier? Does the daunting nature of the task ahead keep any of you from starting your journey?

Come on and share. We’re all friends here.

9 thoughts on “Page One, Chapter One. Again.

  1. I actually like beginnings. It’s at about the 30k mark that I think, Wow, you’ve still got a long way to go. I realize then it’s head down, pedal to the metal, day in and day out. I try to concentrate on the page in front of me (Ann Lamott calls it the “one inch frame.”) Some days are easier than others, of course. I try to keep typing.

  2. John, it’s definitely an intimidating task to face. My co-writer and I are finishing up the latest phase of revisions on our new one and will soon take on the same cursed cursor as you. I think we have a great idea for our next thriller, and I’m anxious to begin. Like you, the beginning scenes played out in my mind withing minutes and set the stage for a race to the finish. One of the things that helps me as I start each new writing project is to have the ending clearly in my mind. I feel strongly that I must know where I’m going before I go.

    But the two scariest words in a writer’s life have to be: Chapter One.

  3. First things first, John, it was a pleasure seeing you again and meeting James at Bouchercon.

    Like James, I’ve had beginnings come rather easy. For me the task gets tough after the 3rd chapter or so.

    Right now I’m trying to get the last 5,000 words done on book 2 while I’ve been fighting the urge to start on a fabulous idea for a third story. Number 3 is kind of getting in the way of number 2. (that doesn’t sound right)

  4. Wilfred,

    We did have a good time at B-Con, didn’t we? For me the pull to start writing a new and exciting story is always strongest aruond the halfway mark of whatever I’m writing at the time; the point at which plotting is hardest for me.

    Joe, I agree that I’ve got to know where I’m going before I take the first step. If nothing else, it cuts down on the unneeded and time-wasting dead-end detours.

    Jim, Keeping on keeping on is the nly way.


  5. What works for me is, in the words of my Beloved Spousal Equivalent, to eat the elephant one bite at a time. Knowing I have 80,000-100,000 words to complete is daunting; breaking it into one-day chunks of x number of words or pages keeps me sane. When I hit a roll I keep going, but giving myself somewhat of a limit keeps me from burning out. The story is coming together in my head faster than i can type it up, so some days I can hardly wait to get home from work and start writing.

    I also outline, which tends to keep me on track. I know what needs to be done that day when I get up in the morning, so ways of doing it can percolate throughout the day.

    I saw you across a room at Bouchercon last week but didn’t get a chance to say hello. I did pick up one of your books.

  6. After I’ve outlined a new project, but before I actually sit down to start writing it, I allow myself 3 days of “avoidance.” I’ll do anything during that time–catch up on blogs, read a book, clean out the basement, whatever. During this time, one eye tracks the calendar/clock, knowing my “free” time is dwindling, and the sense of anticipation/dread builds.

    By the time zero hour arrives, I’m rarin’ to go.

    (And, of course, I keep reminding myself it’s only a “first draft.”)

  7. Nice to know I am not alone in that realm. I just ground to a halt 35k into my new WIP…ground to a halt on my face with my mouth open to the gravel on the side of the road. Luckily the sliding stopped, because just ahead I can see where someone failed to clean up their doggy’s doodie.

    Fourth book in and I feel like I am slugging my way uphill through a river of half dried elmer’s glue. Other times I’d just take a walk in the fresh air or sleep on it and wake up full of ideas. Not this time.

    Anybody got a set of jumper cables and a carafe of espresso?

  8. Beginning a novel is somewhat easy for me, an unpublished novelist finishing his third mystery. New plots and characters give me motivation to begin with renewed passion. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that previous works—either still out there in the publishing world or resoundingly rejected—are beyond my control. Writing is something I can control.

    The hard part comes around the fourth or fifth draft when I feel the project will never end. That I just can’t seem to make my writing sizzle, where things are just not clicking. I’ve read and re-read my work so many times the words seem dead and lifeless. These are the times when I’m most likely want to throw in the towel, to wonder why I’m going through this again.

    During these times I pick up my favorite novelists’ works and study how they made the story come to life. Or take a trip to my favorite bookstore and pour over all those new authors whose novels just hit the shelf. Renewed and determined, I return to the keyboard and start pushing ahead to the finish. Maybe this one might be the one.

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