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.

Tax tips for writers by Caroline Woodward

I have the fond­est memory of my Dad hol­ing up in the base­ment, from which a cloud of blue smoke and col­our­ful pro­fan­it­ies waf­ted up for sev­er­al days. It was in­come tax time and Dad went head to head with the Prime Minister of the day, de­term­ined not to pay “that bloody .…..” or “that smarmy .…” a cent more than ab­so­lutely ne­ces­sary to keep the Canadian safety net shipshape.

Do you keep your re­ceipts in a shoe box? Caroline has a bet­ter idea.

Since 1981, I’ve filed my in­come taxes as a writer, thanks to hop­ping off the ca­reer lad­der and lug­ging home 1,500 rice pa­per fables that I made in Kathmandu, Nepal. Writers are al­lowed three to five years to pro­duce a nov­el and to earn zero in­come while rack­ing up re­search and travel expenses.

I am proud to say I man­aged to earn more than zero from selling my writ­ing every single year since 1981 but some years, es­pe­cially those fif­teen years when we ran a book­store and when I worked as a pub­lish­ers’ rep, it was a minor mir­acle for me to write a gro­cery list let alone a haiku or to sell a single bon mot.

But if we writers don’t take our work ser­i­ously, then we will be hob­by­ists forever more and the fact is, a great many of us donate hun­dreds of hours and dol­lars to our com­munit­ies and the causes of the world annually.

You can be very sure that the Prime Minister’s min­ions will seek you out and pick your pock­ets when your next book is a best­seller and that they don’t much care if you took an eight­een year ap­pren­tice­ship at very low ‘wages’ to be­come an overnight success.

I’ve used the same one-page format to re­port my writ­ing ex­penses and in­come since 1981. I ig­nore the reams of forms provided for pro­fes­sion­al and small busi­ness people and so far, the Prime Minister has merely sighed and ac­cep­ted my puny efforts.

Here it is:
2010 Writing Income & Expenses
Caroline Hendrika Woodward
Social Insurance Number


(web­site, au­thor pho­tos, schmooz­ing costs at ½ the meal or pub bill. Sadly, not for new shoes to wear when launch­ing your latest book)

Automobile Expenses………………………$y
(get­ting your­self to read­ing tours, work­shops, etc. Fuel, re­pairs, in­sur­ance, park­ing. Keep a mileage log & yes, claim every trip to and from the Post Office)

Office Expenses-ph/­fax/in­ter­net………… $z

Other Office Expenses & Materials……  $x
(magazine sub­scrip­tions, sta­tion­ery, books, a de­cent chair, book­shelves, computer)

Light/​Heat/​Water…………………………… $y
(if you live in a 5 room house with a one room of­fice, claim 15 your an­nu­al costs)

Travel, ex­clud­ing auto………………………$z
(bus, plane, hotel & meals for writ­ing gigs not covered by pub­lish­er or hosts)

Office Rent…………………………………… $x
(if you rent a sep­ar­ate of­fice, oth­er­wise, claim 15 (or whatever) of your house­hold rent or mort­gage payments)

Capital Cost Allowance………………………$y
(see guide, I used this once in the 80’s to de­pre­ci­ate the cost of a new com­puter but am no longer a re­li­able guide to this category)


2010 Writing Income……………………………$not nearly enough
Net Loss………………………………………… (-$ sigh, net loss again-bo­nus, it can be ap­plied to re­duce your re­spect­able in­come as a brick­lay­er, light­keep­er, ranch hand or writ­ing teacher)


_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​                     _​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​
Caroline H. Woodward                           Date

During this hum­bling pro­cess, I of­fer up thanks to the de­term­ined writers who lob­bied for the Public Lending Right so that lib­rary us­age of our books is com­pensated for, ditto for the Canadian Access Copyright group who pay us for our work be­ing used in schools and uni­ver­sit­ies and elsewhere.

In memory of Dad, I curse Stephen Harper with gusto and with good reas­on. And every year, I look long and hard at the de­scrip­tion of the Vow of Perpetual Poverty. There but for the wimple, go I.

Two things: keep every re­ceipt in tidy en­vel­opes for sev­en years and be scru­pu­lously hon­est (the karma thing). Also, try fil­ing on­line. I just got my 2010 re­turn de­pos­ited in my Credit Union in sev­en busi­ness days flat. Hurrah for new­fangled thingeybobs!