Your Time to Write, Part 2

Continued from “Your Time to Write, Part 1”

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“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Shakespeare, Richard II, Act V, Scene V

Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant kept a plaque on his office wall that read, “What have you traded for what God has given you today?”

I think of that question at the end of every day. I remind myself that God has given me the gift of 86,400 seconds that day. Once I’ve spent that portion of my life, it’s gone. What did I get in return? Did I spend those seconds wisely?

With these questions in mind, here are four more time management principles to launch you toward your writing goals:

Third, make time and space to write even if you don’t have the time or space. There’s no “later.” There’s no “when I get around to it.” There’s no “when I have more time.” There’s only now. If you don’t write now, as busy as you are, you won’t ever write. Writers don’t “get time” to write or “find time” to write. They make time to write.

Heed the wisdom of Stephen Koch, author of the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: “You don’t have time? Make that time. This is essential. Only you can make and defend the time you need for your work. Nobody is going to give it to you. …  You must make time or you will not write at all. Simple as that. And be warned: For every writer, at every level of fame and productivity, making and defending writing time is a lifelong battle. It’s not just hard now. It will always be hard.”

Every writer needs a creative space. It doesn’t need to be a plush office overlooking the seashore. In fact, you’re better off without such distractions. As a writer, your job is not to look out the window, but to look within. A desk, a chair, a computer, and you’re set.

Your creative space does not have to be in your home. I have a successful writer friend who writes his novels in a coffee shop. But that’s not for me. I do most of my writing by speaking into a microphone attached to my computer. I don’t like people overhearing me while I write, so I work at home, in my modest-yet-comfortable office, with the doors closed. Works for me. Do whatever works for you.

Make an appointment with yourself. Be on time and be prepared to work. Even if you only have fifteen minutes a day to write, make sure you’re there promptly, and make each of those minutes count. Photographer Chuck Close said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

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Fourth, put an end to excuses. People have all kinds of excuses for not writing. I’ve found that most people become successful around the same time they stop making excuses. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski believes many writers spend too much time and energy “finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.”

No one’s standing over you to make you write. Your motivation must come entirely from within. You’ve got to want to write more than you want all the things that keep you from writing. If you procrastinate, you’ll have nothing to show for all your years on earth but a list of excuses.

Life is made up of choices, and every choice we make has consequences. Make the right choices, and you can have a successful and enjoyable writing career. But you have to be deliberate in the choices you make. If you don’t make careful, thoughtful choices about how you spend your time, other people will make those choices for you. To have a successful and rewarding writing career, you must spend your life pursuing your own goals, not doing what other people expect of you. 

As motivational speaker Michael Altshuler once said, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”

Fifth, beware of “displacement activities.” A displacement activity is behavior that takes the place of writing. We engage in displacement activity when we feel anxious and conflicted — for example, when we want to write at the same time we feel we can’t write because we are blocked or we simply lack the energy to write.

The state of wanting to write while feeling unable to write is unresolvable — so we displace our anxiety through a different activity. Instead of writing, we raid the fridge, surf the Internet, update our Facebook status, tidy up the desk, answer emails, play computer games, and on and on. If our displacement activity is more-or-less writing-related (such as “research”), our anxiety level goes down. We know we’re not writing, but hey, it’s kinda like writing, so we don’t feel so bad about it.

Some writers, unfortunately, use drinking or drug abuse as their displacement activity. Writers who medicate their anxiety with mind-altering substances usually end up wasting their talent.

If you are aware of the things you do to displace your anxiety, you’ll be empowered to control your displacement behavior. Instead of compulsive eating or web surfing, get up, move and stretch, and grab a cup of tea or coffee. Give your Muse a chance to catch her breath — then get right back to your writing.

Sixth, write in overdrive. To write brilliantly, write quickly. I call the process of writing quickly, under the control of the unconscious Muse, “writing in overdrive.” When writing in overdrive, you don’t think. You don’t analyze or criticize or second-guess your work. You simply create. You maintain a state of passion and enthusiasm for your story, and you are carried along by a process of unconscious inspiration. This state is called being “in flow” or “in the zone.”

Most great writers have experienced writing in overdrive. John Steinbeck spoke of writing “freely and as rapidly as possible” in a “flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” And Charles Baxter, author of First Light and The Soul Thief, told an interviewer, “The spell comes upon me, I’m in its grip. The book develops with my collaboration or unconscious help, and sometimes it proceeds even in the face of my refusal to work on it.”

To make the most of your writing time, discover the power of writing in overdrive. Learn to write freely, quickly, and without inhibition, tapping into that incredibly powerful source of inspiration, the Muse or unconscious mind.


For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Your Time to Write, Part 1

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
Doris Lessing

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The year 2014 was one of the most difficult years of my writing career.

That was the year we moved for the first time in more than twenty years. The sale of the house and the moving process occupied at least eight weeks of my life. Also that year, my father — a good and great man who was always a hero to me — died unexpectedly. So it was an emotionally wrenching year as well.

I had a number of books lined up for several different publishers, plus an assortment of short-term projects. After the move in March and the death of my father in May, I found myself falling behind on deadlines. After I delivered one book late, every other book on my schedule became a race against time.

I wasn’t used to being so far behind schedule. I wasn’t used to asking editors for deadline extensions. I wrote quickly and worked productively, producing more than half a million words for publication that year, averaging almost 1,500 words per day — and those averages included the two months during the house sale and move, when I got almost no writing done at all.

How did I get so much writing done during that year of adversity? I adopted a schedule that was insane and almost suicidal. I don’t recommend it. In fact, I offer this account not as a brag, but as a confession. I think I scheduled my writing year very stupidly, and I have vowed never to do that to myself again. More on that in a moment.

Let me share some time management principles that I knew, but lost sight of during that difficult year. Here are some ways to be a productive writer while maintaining your sanity, your relationships, and a balanced perspective on life:

First, change the way you think about time. People have strange ideas about time. We tend to think (especially when we’re young) that we have all the time in the world, that time is an inexhaustible resource. But time is a finite and precious resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of us knows how much time we have. As Joan Didion reflected after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

You cannot buy time. You cannot save time. You cannot stretch time. You cannot make up for lost time. You must use each moment to the fullest; there’s no guarantee you will ever have another. Whatever you want to accomplish, do it now.

Wise King Solomon offers this insight into the true nature of time: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 KJV). This is your season. Writing is your purpose. Now is your time.

Second, commit yourself to living a balanced life. I paid a heavy price to re-learn this lesson. During 2014, I stacked my writing projects and deadlines too close together, and I didn’t leave enough cushion in my schedule to allow for the unexpected. And it turned out to be a year of unexpected events. There was a period of about six months when I averaged four or five hours of sleep per night, seven days a week.

It was a nightmarish existence, in which I sometimes found myself dreaming (perhaps even hallucinating) at my computer. I found it hard to stay awake during the day, hard to get to sleep at night. I soon realized that my overtaxed brain was acclimating itself to this ungodly schedule, because I was regularly waking up a minute or two before my alarm went off, after only four hours of sleep.

I consumed the elixir of more than a pound of coffee beans per week. My judgment suffered. My friendships suffered. I was so immersed in sleeplessness and stress that, following the death of my father, I delayed the full onset of the grieving process. When my deadline stress finally subsided in the summer of 2015, grief over my father’s death began to hit me harder than ever, more than a year after his death.

Throughout 2014, I produced a lot of words, a lot of books, but I mistreated my brain and neglected my family. That’s no way to live. And that’s no way to write.

So, from now on, I’m committed to living a balanced life.

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Clearly, I have accumulated regrets from that difficult year. But here’s something I don’t regret: No matter how many mistakes and poor choices I made in 2014 (and they were legion), I made sure I left nothing unsaid, no unfinished business with my family. I made sure I said “I love you” to the people I love.

The night before my father died, I called my Mom and Dad on the phone and we talked for about forty minutes. My dad had no major health problems, and I had no reason to suspect that this would be my last conversation with him. We laughed and shared memories. It was a good talk, as so many of our talks have been.

At the end of that conversation, I said, “I love you both.” And they said, “We love you, son.” That wasn’t unusual. We often said those words to each other.

None of us knew that those were my father’s last few hours on earth. None of us expected that he would be gone the next morning. I’m glad we spent that last conversation laughing and remembering and saying “I love you.”

This life is all too short, and time is a nonrenewable resource. Invest each day wisely.

“Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV

Next: “Your Time to Write, Part 2”


For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

To Write Better, Write Faster

by Jim Denney

I used to write slowly. And badly.

In 1989, I quit my day job, took a leap of faith, and became a full-time, self-employed writer. That same year, I contracted to write a nonfiction book for Multnomah Press, then an independent publishing house in Oregon (now an imprint of Random House).

The advance would cover three months of living expenses, so I scheduled three months to write the 80,000-word manuscript. Unfortunately, it took me four months to write the book. I was writing slowly and losing money.

But it gets worse.

In those early days of my writing career, cash flow was an acute problem. I desperately needed the second half of my advance. I sent the manuscript to my editor, hoping he would accept it quickly and cut me a check.

No such luck. Instead, the editor called me and said, “Jim, we’ve got a problem.”

My heart plummeted. “How big a problem?”

“I’m flying out to meet with you in person. I’m afraid this book needs a major overhaul.”

Not only would my check be held up, but I’d be spending additional weeks getting the manuscript into publishable shape.

The editor arrived for our all-day meeting. He had prepared flip-charts showing the existing chapter flow, the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, and a proposed restructuring plan. As we talked, I had to agree: His version was much better.

It was a painful learning experience. I trashed about a third of the original manuscript, rearranged the rest, and wrote two new chapters. The rewrite took a full month to complete, but when I turned in the revised manuscript, the editor told me I’d nailed it. As a personal favor, he made sure my check was issued promptly.

In the end, I had spent five months of my life on that book. I couldn’t afford to let that happen again. In fact, I seriously considered hanging up my word processor and finding honest work.

Over the next few years, I gradually improved my writing skills. I never turned in another manuscript that needed a complete tear-down and restructuring, but I was still writing far too slowly and I struggled to make ends meet.

Then, in 2001, I had an experience that transformed me as a writer: I discovered my superpower as a writer.

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I talk about this experience in detail in my books Writing in Overdrive and A Writer’s Superpower, but for now I’ll briefly say that I contracted with a publisher to write a series of adventure novels for young readers. The contract specified an insanely short deadline plus a $100-per-day penalty for late delivery. In the process of writing those books — and delivering them on-time — I discovered a brand-new approach to writing that has served me well ever since.

Later, I discovered that the writers I admire most — Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Greg Benford, Orson Scott Card — were already using this approach. They had discovered their own writer’s superpower. They had learned the secret of writing quickly, writing freely, and writing brilliantly. Let me tell you how my own writing life has been transformed by this discovery.

Just prior to writing A Writer’s Superpower, I wrote a nonfiction book for an independent publishing house. I started work on Friday, September 2, 2016. I completed the first draft on Monday, October 3, thirty-one days later (averaging more than 2,500 words per day). I spent less than a week on my second draft, and sent the final manuscript to my editor on Monday, October 10. The final manuscript was about 73,000 words long, and was completed in thirty-eight days.

My editor read it, and said it was the best of three recent books I had written for her. She was sending it straight to copy-editing — no revisions needed. You see? By writing faster, I learned to write better.

The ability to write in overdrive is a real-life, honest-to-gosh superpower.

To learn more about how you can write faster, write freely, and write more brilliantly than ever before, I invite you to subscribe to my FREE monthly email newsletter and get a FREE ebook copy (PDF format) of A Writer’s Superpower (also available in trade paperback for $6.99). Just click the yellow box at the bottom of this page.

I think you’ll also want to read my other books on writing in overdrive. First, of course, there’s Writing in Overdrive, my most complete examination of all the skills and insights you need to write faster and write freely. Then there’s Write Fearlessly!, which examines the eight most common writers’ fears that hinder our success — and the practical strategies for conquering each fear. And there’s Muse of Fire, consisting of more than 90 motivational readings — more than 90 days of high-octane inspiration for writers. These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

God speed you on your journey to success!

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Dangerous Visions, Excellent Advice

A number of years ago, I taught a couple of writer’s workshops at the William Saroyan Writer’s Conference, and Harlan Ellison was Guest of Honor. Harlan is one of the three writers I point to as the reason I’m a writer today (the other two are Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle). I was glad for the opportunity to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the years. Here’s a photo of Harlan and me (I’m the shoulder for Harlan to lean on):

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I was recently rereading Dangerous Visions, the ground-breaking science fiction story collection Harlan edited. I first read the book in 1967, when I was fourteen. The book came out just months after one of Harlan’s most powerful stories appeared on newsstands in the March 1967 issue of Worlds of IF. That story was called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and it detonated in my brain like a nuclear warhead (and that’s a good thing).

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While reading through Dangerous Visions again, I came across Harlan’s introduction to a short story by Howard Rodman (page 171). Embedded in that intro is some excellent advice to writers. The advice didn’t mean much to me when I was fourteen. Today, I know it is  wisdom for the ages for all who write—especially in these times of upheaval in the publishing industry. So I scanned the page and highlighted the advice, and I present it to you here:

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If you write, heed those words. Whatever the obstacles in your path, keep writing. A writer always writes. That’s what you and I are here for—to write fearlessly. That’s our holy chore.

Conquer your fears! Read:cover-1writefearlesslyjd

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (Kindle edition)

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (trade paperback)

Here’s to all your dangerous visions!

Welcome to WritingInOverdrive.com!

ABOUT THIS WEBSITE: I created WritingInOverdrive.com to help writers discover how to “write in overdrive” — that is, how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. Here I will share with you the superpower I discovered by accident. I hope this revolutionary approach to writing will become your superpower as well.

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LET’S KEEP IN TOUCH

See what other writers are saying about my books: Here’s the Goodreads page for Writing in Overdrive. And here are the customer reviews for Writing in Overdrive at Amazon.com.

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@WriterJimDenney.

Leave a comment below.

Tell me about your writing struggles and perhaps I’ll post the solution to your problem.

Come back often. Let’s get acquainted.

—Jim Denney

Remembering Dr. King

cover-21greatleaderspwjd-contrastExcerpted and condensed from 21 Great Leaders: Learn Their Lessons, Improve Your Influence by Pat Williams with Jim Denney (hardcover). Also available in Kindle edition.


Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. His father, “Daddy King,” was a Baptist minister who taught young Martin to resist segregation.

Once, Rev. King, Sr., took young Martin to a shoe store. They sat down in the front of the store. The young white shoe clerk said, “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.”

“There’s nothing wrong with these seats,” Daddy King said. “We’re comfortable here.”

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “but you’ll have to move.”

Daddy King took Martin by the hand and they walked out.

“This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious,” Martin later recalled. “I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.’”

An exceptional student, Martin skipped the ninth grade, and went straight from the eleventh grade to Morehouse College without formally graduating from high school. He was a college freshman at age fifteen. He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 and went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He earned a Ph.D.in systematic theology at Boston University and became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at age twenty-five.

Dr. King was inspired by The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a treatise on nonviolent resistance by Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience,” theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the life of Gandhi, who employed nonviolent resistance to achieve India’s independence. He played a key role in the 385-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 1955 through December 1956. The boycott began when Rosa Parks, a secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give her seat to a white passenger. During the boycott, Dr. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed.

His leadership during the boycott elevated him to national prominence.

mlk-marchonwashington1963Communicating the dream

There is much we can learn by studying the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can hear the rhythms and the inflection of his rich voice echoing in the words on the page. In “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” November 4, 1956, Dr. King imagined a letter the apostle Paul might write to the church in America. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Here’s an excerpt:

America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. . . . You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but . . . you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.

Notice the counterpoint of ideas in this passage. The rhythms of these contrasts make Dr. King’s message even more powerful and convicting.

In “Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957, Dr. King expresses his views on nonviolence. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama:

This morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love, somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the University of Eternal Life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Loving our enemies is a constant theme in Dr. King’s sermons. He weaves the timeless teachings of the Sermon on the Mount together with eye-opening original phrases such as “matriculate into the University of Eternal Life.” The combination of old and new, familiar and startling, forces us to think deeply about what it means to love our enemies.

“Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” September 18, 1963, is the message of comfort Dr. King delivered at the memorial service for three girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley — who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was memorialized in a separate service. The church was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 — less than three weeks after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King’s eulogy helped accelerate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here’s an excerpt:

God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. . . .

Death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.

In “How Long, Not Long,” March 25, 1965, Dr. King again shares a vision from his heart. Standing on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, immediately after the Selma-to-Montgomery March, he says:

However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”

How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” . . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because “His truth is marching on.”

The rhythm of the words lifts our hearts and makes us feel empowered and emboldened. In our public speaking, we need to choose not only our words but the cadence of our words. How our words sound is almost as important as what they mean.

In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered his last speech. He spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. He closed with these prophetic words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

The following evening at about six p.m., Dr. King was on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, along with other members of his entourage. He turned to music director, Ben Branch. “Ben,” he said, “make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

Then a gunshot shattered the calm evening. Dr. King fell, mortally wounded.

But his dream lived on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the world with the sound of his voice and the force of his convictions. He changed the world through the power of his unconditional love.

Learn from Dr. King. Lead like Dr. King. Tell the world about your dream of a better future. Change the world through the relentless power of love.

“And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Grab Your Readers by the Throat

“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline.” —Paul O’Neil

My friend James Scott Bell is the author of many best-selling thrillers, including Breach of Promise, Deadlock, and Try Dying. He’s also one of the best writing teachers around. In his book Plot & Structure, he talks about the importance of the beginning of your story or novel:


The first task of your beginning is to hook the reader. Period.

And remember, that first reader is going to be an agent or editor. Tough crowd. These are people who have too many manuscripts to go through each day. They are just itching for a reason to put yours down.

Don’t give them that reason.


Bell’s advice is seconded by science fiction writer William F. Nolan, who recalls his own stint as an editor:


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William F. Nolan

In 1963, when I was managing editor of the SF/fantasy magazine Gamma, I would reserve one morning each week for the “slush pile” — the stack of unagented manuscripts from new writers who hoped to crack the pages of our magazine. I had a sure-fire method for getting through the slush pile quickly; I’d pull a typed manuscript halfway out of its envelope and read the first paragraph. If I liked it, I’d remove the entire story and read it through. But if that opening paragraph didn’t grab me, I’d let the manuscript slide back into its mailing envelope and that would be the end of it. Another rejection.

Brutal, right? Unfair to those poor writers to judge their whole story from just the opening paragraph, right? Wrong. For me, the acid test of the story is its opening. A good story should leap off the page, grab you by the throat, and demand, “Read me!”

We’re talking about hooking your readers with mood or character or incident or with a unique situation. Getting them involved, from the start.


Every writer dreams of crafting an opening sentence that grabs the reader by the windpipe. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. In fact, it’s often best to save the first for last, to leap headlong into your story without knowing what your first sentence will be. There are several good reasons for writing your first sentence after the rest of your story has been written.

First, by the time you finish your first draft, you may decide to cut your first paragraph, your first page, or even your first chapter. As Anton Chekhov observed, “Once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Why agonize over a sentence that may end up on the cutting room floor?

Second, if you chase too long and hard after that perfect opening line, you may end up with a sentence that sounds self-conscious, contrived, and forced. Great writing flows naturally and freely from the unconscious mind. A sentence that has been painstakingly cobbled together with the obvious intention to impress can be a huge turnoff to editors and readers alike.

Third, if you put too much pressure on yourself to produce a sparkling first sentence, you may tip yourself into a severe writer’s block on the first page. Pressure paralyzes creativity. It frightens the Muse. So go easy on yourself. Relax, have fun, and just write.

A book doesn’t have to be written in the same order it will be read. You can start writing in the middle of your story, or you can let it grow organically from a game of word association. There’s no right way or wrong way to create a story or novel.

One of my favorite opening lines is the first sentence of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It’s brilliantly simple, yet it captures the mood and tension of the story. It sucks us in and rivets our eyes to the page.

But that sentence didn’t appear in the earliest version of Fahrenheit 451, his 1947 short story “Bright Phoenix.” And that sentence didn’t appear in the expanded version of that story, a 1950 novella called “The Fireman.” Only when Bradbury was writing the full and final version of the novel in 1953 did he stumble onto that brilliant opening line. The moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to save the first for last.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.” Larry McMurtry makes a similar case in a scene from his 1989 novel Some Can Whistle (the narrator is protagonist Danny Deck, and he’s talking to his friend Godwin, a British professor):


I had been trying to write a novel, and I was still hung up on the first sentence.

“The point I have been patiently trying to make,” Godwin said impatiently, “is that you expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, non-fattening adverb or two.”


You need more than a clever opening line to grab a reader by the throat. Your entire first page must ensnare the reader and not let go. You do this by introducing a vivid character, by setting an emotionally intense mood, by drawing the reader into a dramatic and compelling situation — not with clever wordplay.

The opening line is a promise you make to the reader. Be sure you keep that promise. Never trick the reader with an opening line that is nothing but a bad dream, a bad joke, or a false alarm. Your story should honestly fulfill the promise you make in your opening. If not, the reader will feel cheated — and won’t be tempted by your next story. “Fool me once. . .!”

A great opening is not just about the first sentence. It’s about a bond of trust you establish with your reader on page one. You want that reader to trust you to entertain him or her again and again and again.

So grab your readers by the throat and squeeze hard. Show no mercy. The tighter your grip, the more they’ll love you for it.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

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Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).