|Begin -- and find the personality|
In the radio interview, Doctorow discussed his writing of Billy Bathgate. He had spent a lot of time thinking out the character of Billy and the elements of plot and motif, but was having a difficult time getting started with the actual writing. It wasn't until he wrote out the first line of Billy himself telling us who he was, that Doctorow knew where he was heading and what Billy was to be about. From there on it was a process of learning from his characters what had to follow, and how best to get there. The method strongly suggests a process of listening to some inner muse, or the author's subconscious, to commune with the characters in writing the most authentic, compelling fiction.
This process is at the other end of a writing spectrum for starting a work of fiction, wherein it has been suggested to first develop a written outline of the novel before beginning to write, and maybe even a preliminary storyboard (a graphic, sequential display of the principal plot elements, as was discussed in an earlier post.)
The hazard of starting a new work without a well developed outline can lead beginning writers to "spaghetti-ing," a term coined by Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in his book, Writing for Story. Franklin's book is honed toward creative non-fiction writers, but he stresses his advice is meant as well for fiction writers, too. His point being that as any story moves along, more and more complications can arise; precedents that have been established seem to be falling by the wayside; motivations seem to be clashing; and so, the flow "is taking on the consistency of horse-hoof glue." Seems like an apt description for a manuscript in trouble, nonetheless, one can allow that a writer as gifted as Doctorow may avoid such calamities, even without an outline, by being truly in communion with the characters, and practiced enough to consult his muse at key points about where the ongoing plot may be leading. I've usually been a follower of Franklin's advice, but I think I might have written enough over the years to dare taking Doctorow's approach, even if just occasionally. It certainly seems a bit more exciting and perhaps more creative--in skilled hands.
So, we have Doctorow's concrete example of how he began a specific, highly acclaimed novel (which led to a movie of the same name, featuring Dustin Hoffman); Doctorow had his character tell us who he was and what he was about. This also presented an early opportunity to establish a unique voice for Billy, an eventual 'must' for any character in a compelling piece of literature.
Another often used competing motif is to start with a description of time and place setting for the story. The thought being these are principal screening criteria for many readers trying to decide whether to go any further before choosing a book. Recalling another frequent advisory, there are arguably only three to five pages to capture a reader, agent, or editor. Although place can indeed be an important element in a story, almost as compelling in stature so as to be a 'character' in itself, this choice might also easily devolve into some static, overly wrought descriptive language for opening a story.
A closing thought on choosing a beginning motif is to consider the use of in medias res (into the middle of a narrative, into the midst of things.) It might also provide a good opportunity for incorporating voice and place setting together, and right up front. Select some dramatic scene that was visualized for later in the story and bring it forward, perhaps a scene that shows the principal character in action and speaking in his own, unique voice. Keep in mind, three-to-five pages, at most, before your reader might, perchance, add the book to his cart and proceed to checkout.