Most mornings, I pour my first cup of coffee, sit with my husband and three dogs by the woodstove, and gaze out at Rainy Lake. This mid-October morning, however, a fog as thick as whipped cream dollops the bay.
Usually, this bay is humming with activity. On the other shore, Canada claims Pithers Point, where dogs and their owners often take morning strolls. An historic trestle bridge joins the two countries, where trains pass through the port of Ranier, my village, adding their clatter and whistles to the music of seagulls, eagles, and Canada geese. Often, I spot an otter or beaver swimming along the shore—or a mink scurrying around wooden dock cribs. Fishing boats frequent this bay, too, and I’m sure they’re out there this morning, although I can’t see them.
All I see is the tree outside my window. The spruce is starkly silhouetted, etched in coal-green against a white backdrop. The fog makes every branch more vivid, and somehow the spruce becomes an important marker, a reminder that the rest of the world hasn’t disappeared, it’s merely hidden from my view.
This inability to see any distance is similar to the writing process. E. L. Doctorow wrote: “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go … Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”?
With my logical mind, I find it impossible to think out a whole story before I write it. I know the story is there; I just can’t see it. We rely so much on our vision. No wonder there are fog warnings, reminding travelers to slow down or stay put. Moving ahead through a cloaked landscape can be dangerous. And as a writer, it feels scary. It feels safer to stop until the fog is gone, until the landscape ahead is visible. But in writing, it doesn’t work that way—at least for me.
Right now I hear the distant warning—Woo-woo!—of an approaching train, the sing-song squeal of metal on metal as it slows to cross the bridge. I can’t see boxcar after boxcar, possibly carrying freshly cut lumber or sparkling new vehicles, but I know they’re rolling past with their cargo. Vibrations carry across the water, tremble through the walls of my 100 year old home, up through my toes and into my being. I know. Similarly, in the writing process, I must use other senses—other ways of knowing.
When I feel blinded in the midst of writing a story, I often ask myself the simple question, “What do I know about this story?” Always, the answers are there, but at a much deeper, more intuitive level. I must put an ear to my heart and to my subconscious. My logical brain can only take me so far in the writing process; when I am stopped by the fear of not seeing clearly, I must listen.
I must listen to the story that wants to be told. As I do, I begin to make out shapes and important markers that keep me moving ahead. When I finally type “the end,” only then can I look back and see where each story has taken me. The fog has lifted.
Snapshot: Strong beginnings can be a way to start a great story.
Here’s what to remember:
1) Start with an emotional connection.
2) Begin with conflict.
3) Make things get worse before they get better.
4) Let your character resolve his or her problem.