You’ve all seen movies with the opening shot of a dark apartment on skid row. With only the light from a neon sign from the bar across the street, the camera closes in through a dirty window, onto a man who is lying across his rumpled bed, smoking a cigarette, and sipping on a glass of whiskey. He’s unshaven, and hung-over from an alcoholic binge. The camera pans to a typewriter on a desk with a sheet of paper rolled up half-way. The blank, stark white paper is an angry retort to the man’s desperation. Next to the typewriter is a bottle of cheap whiskey, an ash tray, overflowing with dirty butts, and a stack of clean, white paper. He’s broke, hungry, and his gal has left him angry and bitter, but he still keeps her picture on his dresser. He rises, crosses over to the picture and looks longingly at the girl. He turns, and defiantly stubs out his cigarette. He drains his glass of whiskey and pours another. He holds the glass while staring at the crumpled papers all over the floor; then he finishes the last of his whiskey in one furious gulp. This guy is definitely a candidate for a bullet to the head.
The picture is such a cliché that it hurts, and it doesn’t gel with reality. Most authors are sober, happy people because they are doing what they love. I fall neatly into that category of happy sobriety. I am not the kind of person who sits at a bar ordering one double after another until I’m unable to navigate to the door. And, because I’m happily married, I don’t pine after a lost love. However, we are all human, and we do have our moments of despair. Remember the infamous blank sheet of paper stuck in the typewriter, and that poor schmuck agonizing over that first sentence, and coming up empty? Unfortunately, that part of the legend is true.
My first novel flowed without much friction. The story began with an historical figure where his known fate was wrapped up in that first inchoate sentence, “I am a dead man.” The rest of the novel gushed forth like Niagara Falls. However, my second novel was a different story entirely (no pun intended) as it tried to run off in every direction. I must have rewritten it at least a hundred times. I can safely say that I am now satisfied with it, but arriving at that peaceful state was like taking a stroll in a tornado: I spent the entire year rewriting just that first sentence.
You might ask, “Why is that first sentence so difficult to master?” That first sentence sets the pace and the style of the story, and propels the narrative forward with a question, all to entice the reader to buy your book to learn the answer. Think about all the famous first sentences: “Call me Ishmael,” or “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days,” or “I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man,” or “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” These sentences are literally unforgettable. So, how does a brand new author compete with the likes of Melville, du Maurier, Dostoyevsky, or Dickens? By writing something completely brilliant.
Since no one is brilliant or even smart every time they sit down to write, we must set the challenge before us, massage the words, and sometimes beat them until they sing to us with a voice clear and true. It might take a hundred attempts or thousands. Sometimes we must settle for pretty darn good, but never acceptable, or even nice.
That is the riddle of writing that must be solved before we can proceed. We must face ourselves and reconcile the inner voice, which drove the story into existence, all in that first sentence. Writing can be the most frustrating and maddening of professions, but fulfilling. I’ve quit writing for an entire week until that siren lures me back onto the rocks, and I’m scrabbling to keep from drowning in a sea of mediocrity. You could say it might drive a person to drink. Oh, but didn’t I just debunk that myth?
I sigh as I stare at the empty screen of my laptop set on the bar. “I’ll have another double, please, no ice.”
Chéri Vausé has been a teacher of Theology for over twenty years. Her novels include the archaeological adventure story, The Garden of Souls, and the upcoming mystery, The Truth and Nothing but Lies. You can learn more about Chéri on her blog, and on her Amazon.com author’s page.