Monday, October 03, 2005


First Lines

After two days visiting my parents in The House of No Internet Access, I got back online this morning to find a new meme making the rounds of various writers' blogs. The basic idea is to write down the first sentence or paragraph of any unfinished projects, short or long, currently in the works. So far I've spotted the contributions of Charles Stross, Tim Pratt, and Charles Coleman Finlay.

Well, until I saw John Scalzi's post this morning, I thought I was some kind of freak. Well, perhaps we're both freaks, of similar but distinct varieties. John says that he works serially, and that he doesn't start on a new project until finishing the last one. I, on the other hand, have loads of projects in various stages of development, but there isn't a single line written of any of them. At least, not the first line. I have three short stories currently in outline stage, one novel I'm on track to finish before the beginning of November, and two other long projects I've started blocking out (one a space opera, the other a middle readers novel).

My process is a weird one, and I've not yet met any other writer who uses it or something like it (of course, that said, I've not yet met any two writers who both used the same process). I'm definitely of the Measure Twice, Cut Once school, though perhaps it should be Measure, Measure Again, Repeat As Necessary, Cut Once. I outline projects to within an inch of their lives before ever beginning to write the prose itself. I'll typically have a bullet point on an outline for every beat of a story, going so far as to have notes about the content of every bit of dialogue. If I'm writing a short story, I'll outline to the level of the paragraph, so that I know what information needs to be convened in every paragraph before I ever start writing the first line. Novels for me typically require a little less detail on a paragraph by paragraph level, but even so the ratio of words in outline to finished word count is pretty damned high. For example, the last have of Celestial Empire: Fire Star, which I'm currently finishing up, will run approximately 50 thousand words when completed; the outline for those sections is currently about 25 thousand words long.

Ultimately, I think that my outlines amount to a kind of rough first draft, but a draft which is intended for no one's eyes but my own. In the outline, I tend to write almost exclusively in the present tense, use placeholders for characters names (the last chapter of Fire Star, up until last Friday, starred characters named only Grandmother and Grandson), and pay no attention whatsoever to anything but the information content of a paragraph. When I sit down to "write," then, what I'm really doing is simply rewriting a rough draft, concentrating on nothing but the language itself. As a result, I'm able to write really fast, averaging five thousand words a day, but able to write as much as ten or fifteen thousand a day if I'm really hitting on all cylinders; but since this comes at the tail end of an outlining phase that can last for months, my annual output isn't really any higher than that of someone who can churn out two thousand words a day, every day.

Which is an incredibly round about way of saying that, unlike the writers whose blogs I link to above, I have only one first line to put on display. So, not wanting to break the good luck mojo of the chain-letter-like meme, here it is, the first line of Celestial Empire: Fire Star.

"A pillar of smoke rose to the northwest of the city, sign of some distant fire past Kunming Lake."

(A lot of build up for such a sedate sentence, no?)

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