Start at the Beginning

“I always get the shakes before a drop.”

That’s the first line of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which I’ve probably read 20-30 times over the years. In science fiction circles, that line is the equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

I was probably about twelve or thirteen when I read it for the first time. There’s a problem with vacuuming up books that you’re too young to fully grasp. The folks around you are more pleased that you are precocious than aware that much is going well over your head. 

For the longest time, I naively assumed that the people who made up these stories started with the first line and simply plowed ahead until they reached the end. They had some magical talent that seemed far out of reach. It never occurred to me to voice my theories and my teachers were focused on issues of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

I had fallen victim to the “blank page” fallacy; the notion that the starting point for any writing project was an empty sheet of paper. It’s a myth that gets perpetuated in multiple forms. In school you deal mostly with toy problems; exercises that fit the constraints of lesson plans and grading. Examination books are nothing more than a collection of blank pages. 

It’s possible that you can move on to a world where you never run into a problem that’s big enough to reveal the limits of blank pages. A world of email and bullet points. 

More likely, you will eventually encounter a task that’s too big for a blank page. That’s when you need to see that the blank page is not the beginning; it’s a repeating phenomenon. It’s one of a series of blank pages to be covered with marks; words, phrases, arrows, boxes. 

Getting to a final deliverable (novel, consulting report, or something else) is a process. It’s your choice whether you design and manage that process or wing it. Regardless, it’s a process. The larger the deliverable, the more important the process. 

It’s helpful to separate thinking about the final product and the process of bringing it into being. One stream is about creating, the other is about managing. Two very different modes of thought, but you need both if the final destination is big enough or far enough away. 

Figuring out that first line could easily turn out to be the last thing you do.