The blank page of a new story can be terrifying. Even if an idea is fresh and vivid in my mind, I still find myself looking at that first empty page warily as someone stepping out onto a frozen pond, wondering if I can build a structure that will hold me up, marveling that I ever have in the past. Eventually, I begin with tricks and prompts, or just by edging out into that space, testing the waters with either keyboard or pen. The first page of a story is delicate. It’s the page that gets you into the conflict, that helps you discover a character, that allows a writer to discover what she’s writing about. And for all those reasons, it’s often what must go.
I see it again and again in my students’ work, and I see it in my own; somehow it takes a page to sink into the rhythm of writing, and to get used to speaking with that particular voice. So often my students write of their characters getting up and brushing their teeth; they write about the weather; they write about getting coffee. It’s only on the second page or so that someone knocks on the door, and the story really begins.
I’m guilty of this too. In the first pages of my drafts, characters go wandering through the woods or feel the need to explain who their parents and siblings and uncles and aunts are. They have to tell me about their jobs and what clothes they’re wearing. That’s all good and fine, but when it’s time to look back at a story and revise, I’m stunned by how often cutting the entire first page dramatically improves a piece. Just try it! The drama of your story will emerge, sharp and vital, right out there at the front of the charge.
This might be one of the most important edits you make in terms of publishing your story as well. As an editor of a small lit mag myself, I know how a strong first page can catch my attention, and how a weak first page can make even lovely writing that follows a hard slog. I’ll read past a weak beginning, but now the story is living on borrowed time; I’m looking for reasons to reject. With a vivid first page, I’m far more eager to read on.
It’s a simple, straightforward fix, and somehow you’d think that with this knowledge, I’d be able to skip that meandering first page in the first draft. Yet I don’t find myself able to leave it behind; it’s a bridge to the second page, and I wouldn’t know how to write without it. I have to test the waters with my big toe, and ease into the world; later, I’ll discover that all that careful scene-setting and passive description just isn’t necessary. For the story I wrote for Tahoma Literary Review (release date March 28), I was sitting in a glass-windowed library that let me look out on Lake Michigan. As a native Bostonian new to the Midwest, I was still stunned at the expanse before me, and at the idea that such an oceanic view could actually be a lake. I started writing about the sights and sounds, at how the lake could look like an ocean but be missing the salty smell in the air. I didn’t yet know who I was writing about, or that I would soon draw in a story my mother had told me about a drowning that had happened here. I only knew that the lake made me feel a certain way, and I wanted to inhabit that mood for a while, and see what came of it.
After some helpful discussions with the editors, I saw that the story itself began in the second paragraph, not the first, and that every third sentence of description was repeating itself. Once I’d done the work of thinking and testing and experimenting, I could remove the training wheels. For me, writing a story is nearly always a process of learning what story I want to tell.