Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stuck at the start -- Jen Doktorski

Maybe it’s because I started my writing career as a journalist, and so much depended on the lead.
Or maybe it’s from years of querying agents and editors and knowing I had to hook them in those opening pages.

But when I’m writing, I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on beginnings. Especially the first sentence and the first paragraph. I write and re-write them. Agonizing over every word. If I don’t nail those opening lines, I can’t move on. Nothing else seems to fall into place. Oh, who am I kidding? Even when I do nail them, I can’t move on. I have a complicated relationship with beginnings. I’m like a party guest who takes a long time warming up to the room and then once I do, I don’t want to leave. I start throwing in too much backstory, adding flashbacks, fleshing out the setting, and adding insignificant details. Before long, I’m asking to spend the night on your couch.
Why? Why do I do this? Because while getting started is hard. Beginnings are easy. Beginnings are the exciting part of any relationship. They’re that first bite of a decadent dessert. The first day of a 1,000-mile road trip. That first sip of wine.
But eventually couples fight, rich desserts make you fat, the car smells like McDonald’s French fries, and you leave the party wearing a lampshade. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Often, these situations are the best fodder for compelling stories.

Even knowing all that, I still can’t help myself from overstaying my welcome in those first fifty pages when I’m writing. I’m currently working on a YA romance set at the New Jersey shore. It’s supposed to span the entire summer. While writing my first draft, I was almost a hundred pages in before I realized it was still Memorial Day weekend. As much as I hated to do it, I had to make some bad stuff happen to my main character soon or it was going to be an endless summer. Good when we’re talking about actual summer, a cure for insomnia when you’re talking about a book.
Thank goodness for Martha Alderson (a/k/a The Plot Whisperer.) I’ve read her books, watched her YouTube videos, and interviewed her on my website. For my latest project, I was fortunate to do a plot consultation with her. She made me see that my real problem is not my love of the beginning, it’s my fear of…The Middle. That scary unknown place, where I must send the characters I love while I stand by helplessly and watch their worlds fall apart. But she made me see that this is the testing ground. The place where the reader learns who my character is by what she does. “The middle is where the writer and the character emerge either as victim or victor,” she told me. But if you don't end the beginning, you'll never get there.
Note: I could not find an appropriate photo to accompany my post, so instead I thought I'd share my own beginning. Here I am at age seven. Clearly I'm patiently awaiting my acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.


  1. Love this, Jen. "You leave the party with a lampshade on your head." Ha. Glad to hear you are moving your MC past Memorial Day. Hurry up and get her to Labor Day so I can read this book!

  2. Thanks, Jody! I may have something for you to read very shortly. :)

    1. Yay! Also, I must tell you how adorable that picture is. You look like Harriet the Spy!

  3. You're so right! I am Harriet the Spy. That's exactly how she looked on the cover of the original book. That makes my day. :)

  4. I'm with you on the importance of beginnings, Jen. I have a bunch of authors I love simply because I think they're masters of the setup.

  5. I'm with you on the fear of the middle, Jen! It's a morass you can fall into and never find your way out of! Thanks for the wise words.