Facing the blank page. Every writer confronts that blank page. This moment can be a joy, or a daunting blank — not only the page but a blank mind as well. I really don’t think there exist any surefire fixes for this moment, ways to work into and out of it. The moment exists and I’m about to do it again.
Although not all the prep work is done — I still have character work and a little more work on America 2050 to do — my imagination has been pushing at me, nagging at me to just start writing, for pete’s sake. When it’s like this, I think of my imagination as a six-year-old me breathlessly telling stories to our dog, Patty, or to anyone who’d listen. My Grandma Yager occupied a royal place on my list of recipients for my stories. She told me her stories as well. At that age, I told stories about Bunny Rabbit, my imaginary friend, or about my adventures with the neighborhood kids. Now, I’m telling stories about a 36-year-old symphony orchestra conductor from America who struggles with PTSD and a guilty conscience, his choices and his secrets.
I already know what happens in chapter 1 of Perceval’s Game, the fourth novel in the Perceval series. Evan conducts concerts in Toronto, Canada and people from his past show up to surprise him. Is he happy or dismayed to see them? Does he trust them? How will they affect his plans? Because he does have plans that will take him on a highly dangerous journey through his past. Those of you who’ve read Perceval’s Secret know the pain and danger that lurk in his past.
So, what’s the first sentence, the very first sentence of the first chapter? I’ve been thinking about it all week. The first page needs to pull in the reader with an intense grip. Homer knew this when he told (or sang) The Iliad. The first verse of this epic poem not only sets the stage for the story, but summarizes the story in a way that pulls in the reader with the question: How did this all happen?
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/ and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,/ hurled in their multitudes to the House of Hades strong souls/ of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting/ of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished/ since that time when first there stood in division of conflict/ Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
— Richard Lattimore’s translation in the 1951 University of Chicago Press edition.
When I’m thinking about first sentences and first pages, I return often to Homer for inspiration and humility. He knew his audience and he played to them. My audience today is my six-year-old self who wants a fun, suspenseful, and thrilling story. She can be a tough audience. What first sentence will pique her interest? What first sentence will spark questions in the reader’s mind that will encourage him or her to read the next sentence and the next?
It’s time for me to slip out to play with my imagination. And you know the thing about first sentences and first pages? The first draft is the perfect place to play around with them. I will most likely revise them many times before I’m satisfied.
Whoever says writing is easy doesn’t really write.