Most anyone who has written anything longer than a blog post -- and maybe even that, too -- knows the terror of a blank page or screen. Endless possibility is the same as no possibility at all, and so you hesitate. Even typing any one word seems wrong, because of all the things it cuts you off from instead of all the things it opens up.
You'd think after having done this for a dozen or more book-length works by now, I would know better how to deal with it. Well, I deal with it marginally better than I used to. The trick is to remember that any starting point is only ever one possible door into a room that has many of them.
Flight Of The Vajra is a good example of this. It went through many, many changes before I ever wrote a single word, something I've covered here and here. I wrote about three or four "chapter one" treatments, for the story in different incarnations, before I ever wrote a single one for it in anything close to the final incarnation. The idea was to try out different openings, the way one would try on clothes at the Gap in the fitting room, until you found one that felt like it was the way forward.
Some part of me intensely disliked that it was a matter of feeling. I wanted some kind of criterion I could apply to what was going on, something "rational" and "objective". Then I wised up and realized I was the criterion. This whole thing was coming out of me, anyway, so it made no sense to look for something too far outside myself. If I wrote a chapter and said to myself, "this isn't going anywhere", then I wasn't going to put my nose down and bluster forward against such odds.
With Vajra, it took about three tries before I found an opening that worked. Then, after some more development, I decided to switch that out with another opener, one several years before the main action that set everything up. That insight came relatively late in the book's development, but once it landed on my desk, I knew it was the right thing to do.
Buddhism makes much mention of prajna, a kind of intuitive with-it-ness about things. I think what they are talking about is little more than the kind of reflexive expertise that comes with being consistently close to a certain class of things, so close that you're able to make decisions about it more quickly than people who haven't had that experience. (Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink tried to be about this subject, but I don't recommend it.) Write enough books and after a while you know what kinds of openings work and what kinds don't, and the only way to get there is to write a lot of openings and sit with them. Or, conversely, read a lot of openings and ask yourself why some of them work for you and others don't. But no substitutes exist for the doing of it.
WIth Unmortal, the new book, I've scribbled off a sentence here or there that could be an opener, but nothing that constitutes an actual scene yet. Some of that is me procrastinating; some of it is me looking for the right POV to use with the story. Like Hammer and AONO before it, there's enough going on in many different parts of the story to make a single POV a poor choice, so I will most likely fall back on the good ol' Third Person Pesudo-Omniscient Over-The-Shoulder Key Protagonist POV I've used in those other two stories.
But then again, I won't know until I put at least a few words down. Such is the mission for the next week or so: find the right door into the room.
Other Lives Of The Mind