Guiding Vocals

For me, the toughest part of writing anything is always the opening lines or opening paragraphs. They’re hugely important; do it wrong, you might lose the interest of a reader who will never come back.

Endings? I’m good there. I almost always know where I’m going. Usually when I start any chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what the final “scene” will be, and sometimes even the last line. But that first step to getting there? Ugh. I stare at the page forever. Usually, in fact, I write the opening pages last.

The opening paragraphs of Becoming Dr. Seuss, however, actually came about relatively early in the process, when I was still thinking about how to frame the narrative. In fact, they were born in an airport bar in September 2017 as I was coming back from one of my research trips to Dr. Seuss’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. While in Springfield, several locals had laughed as they told me how disappointed tourists were when they pointed their cars toward Mulberry Street, expecting to find the Seuss household preserved there as a relic, much like a visit to Monticello, only to discover he’d actually lived on Fairfield Street, several blocks away.

Sitting at the bar, I unfolded a little map of Springfield I’d printed out, and looked at the locations of Fairfield and Mulberry Street and nearly said aloud to my beer, “I need a map of imaginary locations.”

Not the most brilliant of observations, but it was enough of an aha moment that I pulled out a black notebook and pen and started handwriting an opening paragraph wrapped around that idea:

The messy first pass in my notebook.

It’s not entirely formed, but it there’s enough to serve as what I call a “guiding vocal”–so that when I sat down to write the opening paragraphs months later, I at least had a good idea of where I wanted to go. Here’s what those opening paragraphs ultimately looked like:

It’s not exactly the same, but you can see the original idea is still there, along with a bit of the language.

Oh, and I should note, too, that I don’t handwrite notes or drafts very much–and looking at it, you can probably see why: it’s a complete mess. I usually write the first draft and then edit right in the Word document I’m using. But there are times when you get sufficiently inspired and need to start noodling around with whatever you’ve got on hand in an airport bar.

2 responses to “Guiding Vocals

  1. Stephen Parrish

    I can’t begin seriously working on a project until I have the title and the first sentence. Both can change later, but I need crystallizing seeds.

    Like

  2. As a pantser, I love blasting my way through the empty page (for fiction, admittedly), and that becomes my outline of what will be an entire rewrite.

    I’m looking at being an outliner now due to the drivel that results from all that pantsing.

    I always love reading other writers’ processes, so thanks for sharing this!

    Like

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