Walking through fog. With the headlamp on. Low. Paraphrasing a quote from E.L. Doctorow. This is what it’s like to write a novel. I keep telling myself that as I move forward, ever so slowly. These first infantile steps, as if I’ve never taken them before.
“It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” from E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94, interviewed by George Plimpton in The Paris Review.
But I have. Three times. I have conceived and birthed three whole, healthy novels. (Well, two healthy ones anyway. My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished. Then there was that half novel – aborted for good reason. We all have a few unworthy pages buried in a drawer.)
Now I face a brand new work. My desk is covered with research notes, outlines, character development thoughts, and a tower of books with scribbled marginalia, pages tabbed with Post-its, and sentences highlighted in fluorescent rainbow tones. I arrange maps and photographs on the magnetic whiteboard in my office, unpinning those that have hung there for years, pinning up new images in trust that they will magnetize my mind.
I try to remember exactly how I wrote those other novels. I can’t recall – only the vague tingling, the early sense that here was something interesting, the delectable rush as I began to explore. And the way I discovered each character and plot-line, how all those disparate pieces merged, information and ideas coming just as I needed them, bit by bit until they all fit – eventually – perfectly.
I emphasize “eventually” because it’s easy to forget all the hard work and pain. Like birthing a child and then raising one, the fondness and pride come after the job is done. It’s far harder day to day in the midst of the doing.
Now I am at the beginning all over again. Christina Baker-Kline once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels like she has no idea what she’s doing. I’ve clung to those words. To E.L. Doctorow’s wise quote. But also to Madeleine L’Engle’s advice when I studied with her years ago: “If you talk about your novel too much, you’ll never write it.”
So, against modern custom to blast social media with every happily accomplished punctuation mark, I will not share with blog readers or even friends exactly what I’m working on. I won’t talk much about my characters, setting, plot twists or conflicts as I discover them along the way. The sharing that matters to me is the process and struggle, as I sift and sort notes, moving ideas from card to card on Scrivener’s virtual corkboard, trying a new arrangement of bolded headings in MS Word to help me see the bones, the sinews, maybe even a little of the muscle yet to come. All writers must discover their own process, and every book – like every child – has challenges of its own. What I create will only matter when it’s finished, but how I work and discover all over again – that is something all of us can consider and value.
A friend reminded me of something Anne Lamott wrote about her own writing process. Apparently she has a picture frame on her desk – one inch by one inch in dimension. When she isn’t sure where she’s going with her work, she looks at the frame and reminds herself that that’s all she has to focus on – that tiny one inch square.
“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
That’s where I am about to embark, writing only the first thought, the first sentence, the first paragraph that will move me on to the next. One step. One stumbling movement in the dark. With my headlamp securely fastened to my forehead, I begin again.
Ah, as I write this post, I realize I’m starting “Beginnings” right after my post called “Finished”! Well, it’s appropriate, as one Writers Circle session ends and another starts, to have a discussion about first sentences.
Choosing the right first few words for your story can be agonizingly difficult. In journalism, opening lines are called “hooks”, literally intent on snagging the reader’s attention like a fish on a line. Coming up with the perfect starting sentence requires balancing many things – voice, point of view, scene setting, details of topic and circumstances, and much more. All this must be conveyed with just the right well chosen words, setting the stage for a reader to enter your narrative.
Here are the “100 Best First Lines from Novels” as assessed and compiled by the American Book Review. It’s a fascinating study not only of good beginnings, but of the many unique ways a story can start, from entering the inner life of the narrator to listening to a self-conscious author announce his or her book.
The brilliance of these initial lines is in their titillation, telling us just enough, even if most lines tell us almost nothing. Note the length of sentences – a few simple words played like precisely struck notes, or a paragraph-long sentence that somehow coalesces without confusing.
I challenge you to look at your opening lines and ask yourself if they pinpoint precisely the story you plan to tell. Do they take you immediately into the moment of your work, or do they meander, wondering where the story really begins? Does your narrative voice beg the reader to listen, almost breathing the personality of the character who speaks? It’s very tricky and takes a shocking amount of honing.
Don’t be satisfied simply with whatever first comes out. Sit with it for a moment and think about what the words do or don’t say. Then draft the story and return to those first lines again. Do it over and over as your story evolves. More often than not, those original, beloved first words will completely transform with the unexpected progress of your work. Sometimes you’ll eliminate them completely.
So see where these lines take you, and try some yourself. Here’s to new beginnings.
I’ve been cleaning off my desk. It took longer than I thought, but these few weeks since I sent my manuscript to my agent have been fraught with minor illness and unexpected delays. Among the piles I found several half started articles, a couple of nearly finished essays, and a bunch of handwritten, spontaneous fictional sketches that I never even bothered to type into the computer. Most of them will never get farther than they are. Or perhaps in a fit of inspiration, I’ll finish them one by one and then pray that they’ll be read one day beyond the light of my office window.
There’s something seductive about that first inspiration, the idea for a story or essay or novel that comes to you in a flash. It shines in the mind like a brilliant, newborn star, or hangs just out of reach like succulent fruit waiting to be picked.
It is an illusion. Beware.
Those first words rush forth from you, brilliant, masterful. Then there’s the delving into research, all the planning, all those outlines for characters that will soon spring to life. But then, the blank page. How to become God on the last day of creation? All the supports are in place – the sun has risen, the moon set. The land and sea have been parted. The animals all roam among luxuriant forests or grassy, verdant plains. But how – how, indeed, to create a man? Or a woman? Or a child? Or a dog for that matter, someone or something that has light behind its eyes? That has thoughts and feelings and reasons for their words, if they have words at all? But then, you’ll need reasons for that, too, and a unique way of expressing them.
Slowly, I say. Slowly. Take your time.
About thirty pages in – or fifty, if you’re lucky – that first flush of momentum starts to slow down and the blank page doesn’t fill quite as smoothly as before. You discover on page 54 that indeed, the main character CAN’T come from a religious family because his attitudes are all wrong. Unless he’s a rebel. Yes, perhaps he’s a rebel. But then, you’ll have to go back and fix all that stuff about his blind devotion on page 27.
It goes on like that until somewhere around page 150 or 200, you start to understand the underlying themes of your own work. You’d written down ideas like that before: the overarching purpose, the inner life that drives your characters. But now you see that all of that was misguided, and the basic premise was both much simpler and much more complicated. So you start making notes, long notes, often incomprehensible, about what you must change, and ways to fill in the gaps you never even realized were there. And those notes fill a document or a wire-bound notebook, so you know you’ll have to go through them and think them out again. And while reviewing them one day, you’ll notice an uncomfortable number of brilliant contradictions.
Writing is not like life. It doesn’t roll forward of its own accord, any which way, whether you want it to or not. It must be wheedled and cajoled, shaped and fashioned to serve the vision of its master.
So if God’s really up there revising that epic book for the 5769th time, then take heart. He or she hasn’t gotten it right yet. So why should you, or I?