In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
The first five hundred words were uniquely terrifying — it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me.
There’s nothing like staring at a blank document when you set out to write a novel.
And there’s nothing harder, truly, than actually getting started. I just completed my twentieth novel. And just like with all the others, the very first day, which in this case was June 3, 2019, was by far the most terrifying.
I opened the document and did the easy part: I wrote the title on page one. I’m always pretty good at that part.
Then I scrolled down and typed, CHAPTER ONE. That was easy, too. Then I pushed the RETURN button, and then the TAB button.
And then I saw the blinking cursor.
This is absolutely the most terrifying part of writing a novel. Those seconds before you write the first sentence. I’d written and revised nineteen novels, and starting my twentieth was still really, really hard.
I thankfully had a clear idea of what I wanted the first scene to be, so there was that. But where in the scene to begin, that was the question. With what moment, what emotion, what observation.
In ten years of writing and submitting and querying, I’ve realized how absolutely critical the first ten pages of your manuscript are, particularly that first page.
Agents and editors are busy people. They don’t necessarily want to say no to you, but they also have to really be wowed by that opening chapter to continue on and eventually say yes.
It’s sad but true: you can write the best novel in the world, but if chapter one sucks, good luck.
The whole book needs to be as great as you can make it, but you always want to wow them with that first chapter, that first page.
You want to make it clear the kind of book you’re writing and showcase a unique and compelling voice.
Therefore, you might stare at that blinking cursor on day one a long, long time. You might write a sentence or two, then erase them and start over. I did that once on my latest novel.
I actually wrote a full paragraph before I stopped, erased it, and then started the scene a little bit later, deciding to get to the heart of the moment rather than focus on description of the setting.
So begin writing a couple of times, then erase your work and start over if you must. This doesn’t make you a bad writer. Opening a novel is hard, and few of us get it exactly right the first time. That’s why revisions are so important.
That’s why revisions is writing to me in a sense, because that’s when you shape the work chapter by chapter into what you wanted it to be in the first place.
Revisions will come. For now, take a deep breath, and start your novel.
Your first 500 words might totally suck. They might be so bad you want to quit right then and there.
Keep going anyway. Finish that first chapter, whether it’s day one of writing or day two or whatever. Then start chapter two and write some more.
Usually I relax around chapter four or five. I find a groove that I try to maintain all the way to the end of my book a few weeks later.
What Stephen King is talking about specifically in the above quote is his attempt to write after the near brush with death he had in 1999 after being struck by a van. He struggled so deeply to write those first 500 words, as of course anyone would after a traumatic incident.
But I really do believe that quote extends itself to the beginning of any major writing project, too. Because it doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for years, or if you’re starting your very first novel. It’s terrifying. You have no idea if you can do it. If you’ll be able to reach the end of chapter one, let alone the end of the entire novel.
No matter what, you have to push past that fear, and just get going with your story. Write the opening as best you can, and if it sucks, that’s fine! You can fix it later.
I’ve thrown out and rewritten opening chapters months after completing the first draft. Sometimes you have to look at the whole of a novel to see what’s working and what isn’t working.
But you can’t ever see what’s working and what’s not working when there are no words yet on the page.
So if you’ve been thinking about starting a novel, begin today and not tomorrow, and realize that the terror you feel is completely normal.
What will make you stand out from the others is actually starting the novel in the first place, and that you keep going.
Every single day until you reach THE END.