I Don’t Know How to Start

Lightbox 2016 - Feb 5 - I don t know how to start

I was looking after the book table at a colleague’s launch last year when a woman approached me and very quietly told me: “I want to write a book but I can’t seem to get started. How do you start?”

I asked: “Do you know what it’s about?”


“Do you know who’s in it?”

“Pretty much. Yes.”

“And you’re having trouble starting it.”

A nod.

“Do you know how it ends?”

She brightened up. “Yes! Of course I do.” A shy laugh.

“Then start at the end and write backwards.”

Nothing about How to Write Is Etched in Stone

There’s more than one way to write a book. Women tend to think linearly and men in the big picture. “Tend to,” I said. “Tend to.”

If we find ourselves using either one of these thought patterns exclusively, it’s time to … Ready, Class? It’s time to … Drum roll … Break Our Programming and do things in the opposite (or at least different) way.

Instead of my writing the story as:

  1. Mary’s husband dies
  2. Mary now lives alone and doesn’t like living alone
  3. Her children worry about her mental condition
  4. On the advice of her psychologist/priest/rabbi, Mary decides to travel to the coast to do some painting
  5. Mary meets John
  6. She thinks he’s hot
  7. He stares back at her with desire
  8. She discovers something that makes him look like a bad guy
  9. They have a fight
  10. She finds out he isn’t a bad guy, it’s his evil twin that’s the bad guy
  11. They make up
  12. They have sex
  13. They ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after

… I can change the order around and write it in random chunks to be fit together later — after the stress of getting the damned thing out of me is over and done with. Example, I can write the sex scene first, or the fight, or the discovery of the evil twin.

Or I can lay out a skeleton (the big picture) and fill in the muscle, bone and sinew from head to toe.

The main thing is, one doesn’t need to write a book from beginning to end. Very often, the first couple of chapters should be tossed anyway.

But Backwards?

I’m always referring to books on screenwriting as being valuable. Writing backwards is something I learned from one of them. What are the advantages to writing a story backwards?

  • Because of this, this happened and because of that, that happened, and because of this other thing and that other thing, these events happened.
  • No effect without a cause. Tight writing.
  • No loose threads. Everything ties in together eventually. No scattered bread crumbs. No subplot left unresolved. Neat and tidy and boxed up with paper and a bow.

The first time I tried writing a piece this way I snickered each time I threw in my foreshadowing. It was great. Heh, heh. They will never know this is a foreshadow to that which is a foreshadow to this until she finds the key to the mysterious room at the end. Heh, heh.

Working backwards I would have Mary find the second key — the one to the mysterious room (and what the story is all about!) — in the desk drawer.

  1. Because she has opened the desk drawer with the first key.
  2. Because she has found the first key on the top shelf of the library above the Arthur Conan Doyle books.
  3. Because she has seen the butler’s wife put something on that top shelf.
  4. Because she has followed the butler’s wife after she heard the woman and the footman whispering suspiciously out in the stables …
  5. Because a nosy neighbour alerted Mary that something was going on between these two.

Why would the neighbour share that with Mary? She doesn’t even know her. Or perhaps she does … Did the neighbour and the footman have a falling out? Why was that?

Backwards? Why not?


Next Post — I Don’t Know How to Finish

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8



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