S.G. Browne

The Writing Life: Where to Start?

“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”
–Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation


Many a writer has had this conversation with himself (or herself), though personally I would be thinking about a blueberry muffin or a cranberry scone instead. Who am I kidding? I’m an apple fritter guy. So yeah, that would be my pastry of choice.

The point is, as difficult as it can be to finish a book or a story or a screenplay, there’s always that moment at the beginning where you’re trying to figure out how to start. Sometimes it’s easy. You hear some song lyrics or read something in the news or a line just comes to you out of nowhere and you’re off and running. Or rather, off and writing.

Other times, you sit and stare at a blank screen or a blank page and run through an internal dialogue similar to what Nicolas Cage does above. When that happens, you can spend hours searching for a beginning. Looking for the door that opens into your story.

I’ve had my fair share of both. And as I’ve mentioned before, since I don’t plot out my stories but discover them as I go, my opening line is always the impetus that propels me forward to the next discovery. I usually don’t have any idea where the story is going or where it’s going to end or what it’s going to be about until my characters start talking and doing things and letting me know what’s happening. So the opening line helps to get me going.

However, that’s not to say that I wait to come up with the perfect opening line every time. Something close is helpful. And even though I might think my opening is perfect, there’s always the chance that I’ll go back and change it to make it better. Or completely different.

My original opening to Breathers began with:

My name is Andrew and I’m a survivor.

The first chapter took place in his Undead Anonymous support group. It wasn’t until halfway through the 82 rejections I received that I moved the Undead Anonymous chapter to Chapter Two and wrote a new opening chapter with Andy waking up drunk on the kitchen floor and finding his parents stuffed into the Amana bottom freezer.

I don’t think that necessarily helped to land an agent, but I think it started the story off on a more active note. It’s not everyday you wake up and realize you’ve killed your parents and stuffed them into the refrigerator between the mayonnaise and the leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

While the opening chapter to my second novel, Fated, remained more or less the same and took place in a shopping mall in Paramus, NJ, the original opening line was:

I look at people and see what they’re going to be like in twenty years.

Eventually, after making some edits and adding a list of rules to the manuscript, I rewrote the opening to read:

Rule #1: Don’t get involved.

This worked on several levels and helped to tie some things together. It also set up the rule to be broken because that’s what rules are there for.

So even though the opening is important, just because you don’t come up with the perfect opening to start with, if you walk through the right door, the opening you’re looking for will eventually find you.

Below are several opening lines I’ve come up with that never wavered and led to two short stories and a novel that were inspired by: 1) a song from Beck; 2) my first novel; and 3) a writing exercise.

Grandpa only had one finger left and it was pointing at the door.
(From my short story “Softland,” which will appear in my upcoming e-book short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel, available March 27.)

Is it necrophilia if you’re both dead?
(From my short story “Zombie Gigolo,” inspired by my novel Breathers; “Zombie Gigolo” can be found in Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel, as well as in The Living Dead 2.)

It’s my understanding that naked women don’t generally tend to carry knives.
(From my third novel Lucky Bastard, scheduled for release on April 17.)

Sometimes, the first time is the charm.

Filed under: Just Blogging,Lucky Bastard,The Writing Life — Tags: , — S.G. Browne @ 7:14 am


  1. It was a dark and stormy night. Go. (You’re welcome.)

    Comment by Susan Seaman — January 17, 2012 @ 7:44 am

  2. You’re appealing to the Edward Bulwer-Lytton in me.

    Comment by admin — January 17, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  3. I sort of do the same thing, lol.

    The line that inspired the just finished first draft (and is no longer the first line but still shows up in the text) was “God was a lot nicer before he got his hand bitten off.”

    Comment by Thom Marrion — January 25, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

  4. And that would be completely understandable. Thanks for sharing, Thom!

    Comment by admin — January 26, 2012 @ 7:31 am

  5. 2institution

    Trackback by 1distance — January 12, 2022 @ 4:57 pm

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