When I start a new project, I have no idea what the first paragraph will look like. I do a lot of essential preliminary work: reading, note-taking, sketching settings, listing character traits. Sometimes I even jot down snatches of conversation.
When I feel like I have at least two characters in mind and a place where they belong, I sit down at the computer — or open a notebook — and simply start writing. If I have done my homework well, the words will begin to hang together in some sort of pattern. Perhaps I won’t recognize it at first, and it will seem like I am using the “stream of consciousness” technique –something I didn’t appreciate reading in college — but which I find useful when I am trying to get a grip on a story.
After I have written a couple of meandering pages, I go back and start putting related pieces together — something like stitching a patchwork quilt. I throw most of what I have written away and keep the cream –just like my grandmother used to do when she skimmed the rich top off the milk bottles for my grandfather’s morning coffee. These are the things I look for:
SOMEONE — SOMETHING — SOMEWHERE
My first paragraph must contain all three story elements. Let me give you some examples:
(1)from my book, Violets Grow in Secret Places:
“This place is full of termites,” Took said. “I heard them crunching in the walls last night.”
Jessica stopped watering the hanging plants and gave him a look. “Termites don’t crunch,” she said. “They’re very quiet.”
Took and Jessica (someone) are talking about termites (something) while in a house or shop with hanging plants (somewhere).
(2) from my book, Straight along a Crooked Road
Luanna first heard the rumor on the Sunday before the Fourth of July in the year 1850. It was just a broken bit of conversation spoken at the edge of the churchyard.
Luanna (someone) hears a rumor (something) at the edge of the churchyard (somewhere).
(3) from my book, The Crooked Gate:
The crooked gate was the first thing Cass saw. Later, she wondered why, for the whole house had a patched-together kind of look, like a jigsaw puzzle without all its parts.
Cass (someone) sees the crooked gate (something) in front of a strange-looking house (somewhere).
Not very much to get out of two whole pages of stream-of-consciousness meanderings? That may be true, but these sentences are story starters. They make the reader ask, “Who are these people? Where are they? What are they going to do next? Character — Setting — Plot. It’s a good enough start for me!
Submitted by Marilyn Donahue