Writing the first sentence of a book

Eighteen months ago I shif­ted my focus to cou­gars, the sub­ject of my next book. After a peri­od of intense research, I began organ­iz­ing all the inform­a­tion I’d gathered.

It was an immense job that involved sort­ing through a Bankers Box full of files and an equally massive amount of inform­a­tion saved on my hard drive. And then one day it was done.

What now?” I wondered. Then it hit me: it was time to start writ­ing the book.

But how? I knew what I wanted to say but what about that all import­ant first sen­tence? I searched my mind. All I found was an image of the Sahara desert, a totally empty land­scape stretch­ing into infin­ity. Just like the blank screen on my com­puter.

A knot of pan­ic formed in my chest. Breaking the house­hold rule of not inter­rupt­ing each oth­er when we’re writ­ing, I rushed into Rick’s office. “It’s time to start writ­ing my book and I don’t know what to do,” I announced. 

It hap­pens to me every time I write an art­icle,” he replied then con­tin­ued tap­ping away on his key­board.

I trudged back upstairs and shuffled some papers around on my desk. I called my mom. I made a cup of tea. I changed the water in the dog’s bowl. And then I laughed. I was employ­ing the old­est writ­ing trick in the world – pro­cras­tin­a­tion.

My brain is sharpest in the morn­ing and by then it was late after­noon so I let myself off the hook for the day. The next was filled with errands down­town but the day after that…I had to start the book.

I wondered how I’d ever found the elu­sive first sen­tences of my oth­er books. To be per­fectly hon­est, at that moment, I had no idea. The whole concept of writ­ing the first sen­tence of a book seemed daunt­ing, per­haps impossible.

People new to the craft of writ­ing often ask me for advice. So I asked myself what I’d tell them about start­ing a book. At least that was a ques­tion I could answer. “Just jump in and do it,” I’d say. “Don’t worry about it too much, you can always change it later. Something will come to you even­tu­ally.”

And the next morn­ing, while I was walk­ing the dog, it did.

Heavily fall­ing snow covered our boot prints almost as soon as we made them. The fat white flakes, the forest around us and the arrival of twi­light meant vis­ib­il­ity was fad­ing fast. And right in front of us, filling with snow as we stared, were the large foot­prints of a cou­gar….

It might not be per­fect and would prob­ably change over time. But, at last, I had a way in. I could start the book.

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6 Responses to Writing the first sentence of a book

  1. Susie says:

    The first thing I type on the com­puter screen when I’m writ­ing a news­pa­per art­icle is some­thing I learned in grade school: my name. Then the empty com­puter screen doesn’t seem so empty any­more. My fin­gers are occu­pied with the key­strokes, and it forces my brain into action too. I view a white screen or an empty piece of paper as a chal­lenge, and not a threat. It helps.

    (Although I have yet to find a solu­tion for pro­cras­tin­a­tion…)

    Can’t wait to read the new book, Paula!

  2. Penelope Dewar says:

    I remem­ber it well, as if yes­ter­day. The hounds were already loose, mov­ing fast on the cougar’s fresh scent, and the snow was fall­ing so hard that their tracks too were filling, dis­ap­pear­ing, and the sound of their excite­ment was muffling into the white. In spite of the snow and the fail­ing light, it was too late to turn back.

    My sis­ter-in-law, Deb Griffiths, told me about your book. I’m inter­ested in your approach. Hope to one day soon return to writ­ing about the big cats.

    • Paula says:

      Hi Penny,

      Good to hear from you. And I sus­pect the rest of your cou­gar paw print story is more excit­ing than mine!

  3. Kim says:

    Paula that’s inspir­ing. I’m not a writer myself, but end up hav­ing to write for vari­ous reas­ons non­ethe­less. If I just plunge in and start with whatever comes to mind to get myself going, then I can always go back and fix it later — just as you’ve said!

    I’ll keep plug­ging away at my pro­jects, and I look for­ward to your next writ­ing tips.

    • Paula says:

      Thanks, Kim. You’re right, the first sen­tence of any­thing — be it a nov­el, report or even a love let­ter — can be a chal­lenge to write. We’re lucky to live in these techo­lo­gic­al times where it’s so easy to go back and revise.

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