The Diving Board

May 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm (Writing) (, , )

Writing is a lot like swimming.

There’s the spark- you don’t just randomly go swimming. You get the idea to go swimming. And when you get that idea, you turn it over in your head to see if it’s something you really want to do. After all, there are lots of other ideas. You could go bowling, watch TV, hang with friends. Is swimming really what you want to put your time and effort to?

So you decide, yes, you want to go swimming. You want to go with that idea. But again, you don’t just jump into the pool. You make preparations. You get into your bathing suit, you get a towel, sunscreen if you’re into that. You have to actually get to the pool, whether that’s in your backyard, across the complex, or across town. If it’s going to be an all-day thing, you pack things to take with you, like a book or toys or music. In other words, you’re gathering the tools you’ll need.

You arrive at the pool, set out your things just the way you want them. Now you face a choice: shallow end or deep end?

There’s something exhilirating about the thought of plunging into the deep end right off the bat. No worries, no holding back, just SPLASH. Just jump in and see what happens next.

But sometimes, you know, that water is really frickin’ cold, and when it closes around your head, there’s a moment of panic. Suddenly being in over your head isn’t just a literal sense. You flail and struggle, and sometimes you manage to paddle to the edge and pull yourself out, and it’s going to be a little while before you try that again.

Which is why most people start out at the shallow end. They test the water with a foot or a hand, to make sure the temperature is something they’re comfortable with. They ease in, a bit at a time, acclimating themselves, and when they dip under fully, it’s with the comfortable assurance that they know exactly where the surface is. There’s no panic, no sudden shift. They’re fully in control. So, when, they’re ready, they can either swim slowly and steadily into the deep end, or they can head to the diving board.

That’s my favorite part.

When I was younger, I was someone who would just run alongside the pool (usually to a chorus of “No running by the pool!”) and hurl myself into the deep end with gleeful abandon. And at first, everything would be fine. With swimming, it stayed fine. With writing…not so much. I’d jump into a new project and then suddenly I’d be flailing. I didn’t know where I was in the story, didn’t know who the characters were, had no idea where I was going. It was like being underwater with my eyes closed and not knowing which way the air was. When I finally broke the surface, I was confused and discouraged, and I’d set it aside and sometimes it would be a little while before I’d try again.

How stupid was I to try the same thing time after time after time and expect different results?

(Isn’t that one definition of insanity?)

Now I come at things from the shallow end. I write notes to make sure I actually have a grasp of the idea. I do research beforehand, I make outlines- even if they’re just lists of the big things that happen (it varies from project to project). When I fully submerge myself in the project, coming up is the realization that I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Which is when I go to the diving board.

As a kid, pools with diving boards were infinitely cooler than pools without. There was something about standing on the very edge of the board, toes curled over the lip, bouncing up and down and feeling the springiness as it bounced back. That moment- that bounce- has infinite potential. After all, who knows how high you can jump? Will you do a straight dive, a swan dive, a jackknife? A cannonball? A flip? A flop? But no matter what you were going to do, standing on the diving board was a deliberate thing. You had to choose to do it.

Standing on the diving board after prepping a new project is wonderful and terrifying, and for me probably the best part. You have all this potential ahead of you for amazing things. There’s also a lot of potential for literary belly flops. You’ve done your prep work, you know you’ll be okay in the water, it’s just the entry that’s a point of dismay.

At any given pool party, there was always one kid who was scared of the diving board. He’d go up, stand on the edge- but just couldn’t jump. Sometimes one of the other kids would get impatient and just push him in, and then he’s struggle and cry and it kind of put a pall over the whole rest of the party. Other times, the kid would stand there forever, until finally he gave up, walked back down the board to the deck, and went to sit in one of the chairs for a while, totally discouraged and embarrassed.

Sometimes, when I’m standing on the edge of a new project, I feel like that kid. I know there’s nothing to be scared of. I do. I know that. I know how to swim, I know there are people on the side who will help me if something goes wrong and I start to flail, I know that. Still. There’s that moment of paralyzing panic.

Every now and then, it’s okay to back away. To go back to the shallow end and get comfortable for a bit before trying again.

But at some point, you HAVE to jump in.

Enjoy the splash.

Until next time~

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Natural High: Your First Words

March 31, 2011 at 9:27 am (Writing) (, , , )

After all your brainstorming, all your research and planning and plotting and fretting, there is absolutely nothing in this world quite like the feeling of opening a blank page and setting down the first words of a new project.

Nothing like it.

It’s a natural high, one that makes you wonder why anyone would ever do drugs because this is so much cheaper and less debilitating. Not to mention, you know, legal. You open that blank page, and whether it’s a piece of paper or a Word document, there are entire worlds of potential there. You are the creator, you have ultimate power.

Well, as writers we try to tell ourselves that. Usually the story and characters end up taking over.

But still! From those very first words, you have the potential to captivate your audience. From the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, you can lure them in so thoroughly that they can’t leave your story until it’s done. Those first words are everything, they’re the things that will make an agent read on and maybe want more, make an editor interested, make a browser read more and want to take it home.

It’s amazing.

And it’s terrifying.

Because it’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? Staring at that page, knowing your world and your characters as you do, all of that boundless potential before you, and you need to make it grand. You need to make it wow. It’s not just for the chances of publication and selling at that point- honestly, never worry about that until the first draft is done- but for you. Because these first lines set off the tone of the rest of the book. They’re what make YOU excited to keep going, the things that tell you how you’re doing and what the overall voice is. From the very first words.

There are all sorts of things dedicated to famous first lines in literature. I think even people who haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities can probably spout off most of the best/worst of times spiel. The thing is, though, they don’t remember it just because of the book, or because it’s Charles Dickens; not too many people can pop off the first line of Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit without having the book right there in front of them. It’s because that first line so thoroughly sets the stage for everything that follows, because that first line burns itself into our brains and doesn’t fade. It isn’t just significant, it’s compelling.

Which, again, is terrifying.

Because we want to create something that stands out. We want to create something compelling and captivating. Maybe we don’t want to be stuck shoving our books down hapless required reading lists for generations of students to loathe on principle, but we want to be remembered. When someone is browsing through a bookstore glancing at first pages, we want ours to be the one that stands out, and you do that with the first words.

Obviously It was a dark and stormy night isn’t going to work. You want your first words to be original, to have strength, to not make someone roll their eyes and say “Oh my God, what a cliche” and put it down.

That still leaves a lot of room. Do you start with dialogue? Do you hurtle us right into action? Do we set the scene? Do we present a character? So many possibilities, so many things running through your head as you stare at that blank page, and suddenly it can all seem overwhelming. Take a deep breath. Don’t Panic.

This is your world, your story, and you are the only one who knows how to tell it. So tell it. Take the plunge and spill the ink onto the paper or splash the pixels across the screen and just write.

I got to start a new project yesterday and I’m still over the moon about it. Typing in those first words, even though I’ve known what they were since before I even started the planning, was such a high. Because that means I’ve started! I’m on my way! I have the entire world spread out before me and I’m the one that gets to shape it into words. In a way, I get to play God. How often does that get to happen?

And it starts with those first words.

So take a deep breath.

Don’t panic.

Let those first words spill out.

Then let them carry you all the way through to the last.

Until next time~

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