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.

6 Replies to “Writing the first sentence of a book”

  1. 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. 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.

    1. Hi Penny,

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

  3. 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.

    1. 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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