For me, there's no question: the hardest part about writing a book is the beginning. It's a little tricky, because it's not the first five or fifteen pages that get me. It's the spot right after you run out of that new book momentum.
Let me give an example from the book I'm working on right now, Her Treat. I started my heroine's chapter strong. I gave a taste of her personality, her background, and a slice of her life. I also gave a little hint of why she's at a unique point in her life where our hero's entrance is bound to resonate. Most of these things are borderline requirements for a first chapter, and if you skip over some of them, you generally cheat a reader out of being able to relate and root for your character. People like to quickly know who someone is and why they should root for or against them.
Then I got to the hero's chapter. It started good, too. I got some of his backstory in there, established the stakes, and also hinted toward how the two of them are going to end up colliding. But here's where it gets overwhelming...
Now that I have my two characters kind of loosely sketched out (keep in mind, I don't outline, so I have to think of my first draft almost like an artist would sketch out the rough shape of a character before filling in the details), I have to find a way to make them real. Not only do I need to make them more real, I need to think of situations and a story to put them through that will help not only the reader, but myself get a feeling for who they are. Generally it goes like this: my idea of a hero might be that he's abrasive, an ass at times, and tends to push people away. Maybe he's quick with jokes and doesn't often let people dig for information about him. These are generally all traits I just kind of try out to start because they fit with whatever image I'm dreaming up of the guy. As the story progresses, some of these traits will actually solidify until I can't picture the character without them, and others will kind of fade until I realize they didn't work after all. Maybe it's not that he's abrasive, he's just honest to a fault, for example. It's a great thing when one of my characters starts to feel unchangeable. Believe it or not, it's easier to write a good story when it feels like I'm not working with supple pieces of clay. If every character was just a marionette that I could move and manipulate at will, all the conflict and tension in my story would feel completely manufactured to me. Instead, what happens is that I have to kind of wade through very foggy, unclear territory for sometimes as many as 40 pages while I wait for my characters to solidify into something I feel like I can really understand, and then I have to go back and tweak the story so that they are true to the character I discovered the whole way through. This is also why I don't outline. In the past, I tried and failed miserably. I would have an elaborate plot laid out where the hero ended up catching his brother doing x, doing y to upset the heroine, and doing z to make up for it. Then I'd get 30% of the way into the story and realize the heroine I'd been writing wouldn't do any of those things, so I had to pivot and figure something else out. I think this trait of mine can be a boon and a curse. I've admittedly had books where I struggled the whole way through to really "find" the characters, and as a result, it felt like the character on the page at the end wasn't extremely distinct, which also sapped some of the tension and excitement from the book. On the other side, when I get an extremely clear idea of my characters, I think it adds some real excitement and emotion to the story that is probably almost impossible to manufacture as a writer when you know how everything is going to happen. As I'm writing this post, i feel like I should have frizzy red hair, crazy glasses, and a hideous smock with rockets and planets printed on it--like the prototypical crazy art teacher who says you need to talk to an apple to draw an apple.
But if you ask me, it's okay to be a little crazy when it comes to creating and doing the things you love. Writing is such a strange, hard thing to do that's simultaneously one of the most natural and easy things in the world. We start telling stories before we ever learn to add and subtract, but we also build up a lifetime of insecurity and fear that our stories might not be liked. You can write stiff and carefully and in a way that your Grandma Carol will approve of, but chances are, you won't be writing something worth reading. I'm sure I've failed as often as I've succeeded, if not more, but I'm always hoping what I write can make people feel. I don't try to do this by planning out a theme or a message in my books. I try to do it by making sure the feeling part starts with me. Some of the most impactful moments I've ever experienced in a book probably weren't intentional from the author. It might be something silly like a line of dialogue, the way a character smiles in response to a line, or even the way some element of nature is described. The point is that if an author cares about what they write, a little power seeps into every bit of the story. Which, in a very roundabout way, brings me back to my initial point.
The hardest part of writing for me isn't just the point after the first five or fifteen pages. It's finding a way to insert my mind into the story and the characters firmly enough that I can start to feel right along with them. It's almost like trying to see one of those old Magic Eye puzzles where the image only pops out if you cross your eyes or try to look through the book.
There's no exact science to it. If there was, my job would be a lot easier. But for now, I'd better stop writing about doing it and go back to crossing my eyes at my story. I've been told by my editor that I'm expected to get the story to her on time for once. Can you believe the nerve on her?