Sunday, January 22, 2012

In the Beginning

One of the nicest things about having a website is that people write me letters.  My personal website, although it's got the usual self-serving promotional nonsense on it, is largely taken up by a section called FINISH YOUR NOVEL, in which I try to tell people some of the things I've learned through years of failing and trying again.

So a lot of my mail comes from aspiring writers.  A few days back I got a long letter from a 16-year-old high school girl, who pretty much made my jaw drop. Among other things, she said:

" . . . I recently started developing my latest idea for a novel. With my previous ideas, I had never fully explored the idea and ended up letting it sit until I found myself saying "When am I going to start that novel again?" Of course, when that would occur I ended up spitting out a few more random bursts of ideas and that was that. The cycle repeated itself.

"So now I'm to the point where I feel idle in my life - I'm going nowhere and have no general direction I want to go in. It's quite annoying, actually. A high school junior striving for success to take her into unknown territory - her future. But despite the stresses of getting into a good college and everything that may entail, I find myself coming back to the yearning to write a book. Often I ask myself,  "So when are you going to actually sit down and write?"

She says that in her other artistic endeavors, "What takes me the longest is starting the piece. Staring at a blank canvas is a lot like staring at a blank sheet of paper, in my opinion. I'm at peace while working, but starting is insanely difficult, especially when I don't have direction."

So, okay, she's extraordinary, and I should probably be asking her for advice rather than giving it to her.  But she asked.  And here's part of what I wrote back:

The first thing I'd suggest is that you decide what kind of book you like best, and choose that form.  If you've read a lot of thrillers or YA or steampunk or dystopian books or historical novels or whatever, you have an intrinsic sense of how they work, how they're structured.  That's a big head start.

I'm going to give you two pieces of similar advice from somewhat disparate sources and then one more piece of advice that says the same thing, but from the perspective of a novelist -- actually, my favorite living novelist.  

First, from the German writer Goethe: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it; Beginnings have genius, power, and magic in them."

Second, from Jacques Copeau, one of the leading figures of 20th-century classical theater (this quotation actually inspired Laurence Olivier to stop worrying about getting more training and just start acting):  "There is only one way to begin to do a thing, and that is to do it."

You can see where these are leading.  Third is an excerpt I read two weeks ago in my favorite novel of the year, Haruki Murakami's "1Q84."

The character is a young writer who's been given an opportunity to ghost-edit a manuscript by a 17-year-old girl that has a peculiar power but is abysmally written.  And he needs desperately to get started.

"He had no well-defined plan for the rewrite, no consistent methods or guidelines he had prepared, just a few detailed ideas for certain sections. . . . But events had already started moving, and he had a limited amount of time.  He couldn't just sit there, thinking, arms folded.  All he could do was deal with one small, concrete problem after another.  Perhaps, as he worked on each detail by hand, an overall image would take shape spontaneously."

This is as good a description of the writing process as I've ever read.  Writing is like laying stepping-stones over a void: each scene, each idea, makes the pathway a little longer, and eventually something begins to sort of shimmer at you in the distance, and that'll be the real nature of your novel.  We learn what we're writing about by writing about it, and then we go back and either tidy up the beginning or rewrite it entirely.  But whether that beginning is ever seen by a reader or not, it was an absolutely essential part of writing the book.

So what I'd suggest is setting a totally arbitrary schedule.  Give yourself a month or so to figure out what kind of book you want to write, and then think of a character, or two, or three, and a situation that might lend itself to that kind of book.  In a wonderful recent documentary on Woody Allen, the interviewer asked where Allen's ideas came from, and Allen said he has ideas all the time and he writes them on any old piece of paper and puts them in a suitcase so he can rifle through them whenever he needs a subject.  Then he pulled out a few and read them aloud.  One of them was, "A man inherits the equipment of a great magician."

That was it. No and then he, no and his friends say, not even, but.  Just that sentence.  Remember, in the section of my site that you read, my most basic definition of a novel: "A novel is the story of someone who . . ."

So get your sentence and create a folder on your hard drive and start to write.  You can throw ideas into if for a while if you like, but pretty quickly, if I were you, I'd dive in with an opening sentence that engages your imagination: "She always remembered which night it happened because of the lunar eclipse . . ." and keep going.  

And keep going and keep going.

When you get into trouble, remember that we all get into trouble, every single time we do this. And remember also that your book isn't going to be perfect, so don't stop for imperfections.  Make them stronger later.  The French poet Paul Valery said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned."  This is equally true of novels.  Get through the story the best you can.

Then you can write your second novel.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Glad you also liked 1Q84, Tim. I'm getting my new computer all set up for writing, one step at a time...Happy New Year of the Water Dragon!

  2. Thanks, Tim, or rather thanks to your "extraordinary" correspondent for making me feel sixteen again.

    I, too, am at the beginning stages of a new novel, where my old engine is valiently sputtering out random thoughts hoping to find some to turn over into a smooth purr for the rest of the trip.

    Hmm, mind if I borrow a few jump-start ideas from your how-to tool box? I won't need them, though, until after the Giants Forty-Niners game. After all, age does have its priorities.

  3. Your blogs are always fascinating and engrossing reads, Tim, but never more than when you're writing about writing. It's easy for anyone to see where your real passion flows!

  4. I agree that your sixteen year old is unusual, particularly for the amount of thinking she is doing. I'm always struck by how good a teacher you are in addition to your writing damn good books. Now you have me thinking about writing fiction which may not be a strong suit for me, but it is a thought :)

  5. Very wise and very true advice Tim. All my best ideas come when I'm writing. I could sit for hours, days, weeks trying to pluck details from the air, but they come much more quickly when I sit down and start hammering things out, a sentence at a time.