Starting a Novel, the Truth

Starting a novel. Here’s my dream.

Starting a NovelDream with me a moment, okay? I’m sitting against a massive oak in a field of wildflowers, skirt spread around me, birds chirping, brook running merrily just a few feet away. In my lap I have a notebook and a fountain pen. The notebook cover is a vintage quilt pattern, hand-stitched and. . .

Okay, I’ll move on. As I sit there, listening to brook and birds, the idea for my first sentence forms. It’s so perfect I capture it in my beautifully flowing calligraphy.

I’m starting a novel. The rest will be just that simple. Perfect sentence after perfect sentence.

Here’s the reality. I don’t think I own a skirt, and the one dress I do own wouldn’t be happy in a field. It would wrinkle and crumple under me as I try desperately to get comfortable. Every notebook I’ve bought or been given is empty, and my handwriting has atrophied from disuse so that even I can hardly decipher it.

I’m fairly certain the brook would overflow and the birds would target me for more than symphonies as I waited for inspiration.

(I’m also fairly certain that I don’t look like this photo and never had lovely auburn hair.)

Truth is, I might think I’m starting a novel, but I wouldn’t get a thing written in that field. If I did somehow manage to put a sentence on paper, it would change a hundred times over the course of the book.

Writing is not particularly romantic, and the longer I write, the less I wait for inspiration or search for the perfect atmosphere in which to do it. Writing is hard work, and knowing that? Going into it, knowing that sentences will be rewritten so often that by the time the book goes to an editor, they won’t resemble their first incarnation? That is more freeing than bird song and babbling brooks.

Know this. No matter how you’re starting a novel you’re probably wrong.  If you accept that, you then have permission to put that beginning on paper anyway, because you know it’s simply that, a beginning. You are only starting a novel, and you are entitled to dead ends, to false starts, to lifeless characters and preposterous story ideas.  You aren’t just entitled, you are honor bound to experience them. If you don’t, then you’re a hobbyist, not a novelist.

This past week I began a new book, due at year’s end. I titled it A Fine Clear Light, and my publisher said, “really?” So let’s call that my working title. Here’s what I knew I had to accomplish in the first chapter. Are you ready?

  1. Immediately introduce my major character and show conflict on the horizon
  2. Sow seeds for the multiple interwoven stories to come
  3. Add an action scene to description and dialogue
  4. Give a glimpse of an important issue that will figure into the story
  5. Introduce two men who will play important roles in my major character’s life
  6. Set the scene, both region, town and particular place
  7. Involve the reader so that by chapter’s end, she/he will want to turn the page.

Not romantic, I’m afraid. Not at all.  That’s a lot to do in a field of wildflowers. I accomplished this in the smallest bedroom of our tiny summer cottage with two sets of guests tramping through the halls and children banging basketballs in the street below. I wrote a little, smiled, turned off my computer, turned it on again, gasped in horror, deleted what I’d written, tried again. All over the period of a week.

Is my first chapter of the book formerly known as A Fine, Clear Light finished? Not by a long shot. But I’ve now written the second, and in a moment will begin the third. I will revise and revise again, because that’s the way I write. I want it “right” so I can go on and “write” the rest, and that works for me.

Starting a novel isn’t for the faint-hearted, but knowing you can edit and erase to your heart’s content? Knowing that you don’t have to write perfect sentences or create perfect plots and characters right out of the starting gate? There’s a wisp of romance in that, and here’s why.  Someday, when the book is all completed and you’re holding a copy in your hands, you can head to that wildflower field, lean against that massive oak, and savor everything you did.

Unless, of course, you’re busy starting your next novel.


  1. Iris November on July 8, 2014 at 3:37 am

    Thank you! That just erased all the guilt I have ever had about my first sentence in my first chapter. It can leave, or move or just break-up into the next sentence or three. What a freeing up of my creativity and spirit. If I get to that place by the babbling brook next week, I will definitely find you, and the birds!! Xxxiris

    • Emilie Richards on July 8, 2014 at 7:55 am

      Please stop by and see me. I miss you.

  2. Martha on July 8, 2014 at 7:08 am

    You have confirmed the reason I continue to write only non-fiction and poetry. Fiction is a difficult genre for me. I have the “bones” for a novel, but it’s based on a true story and for that reason I don’t feel it’s my story to tell, no matter to what extent I fictionalize.

    • Emilie Richards on July 8, 2014 at 7:54 am

      You have to do whatever you’re comfortable with, but if fictionalizing true stories was outlawed, there would be many fewer novels. You might find that as you wrote the story changed so much that even the people who lived it wouldn’t make the connection. OTOH it’s never a good idea to be uncomfortable with an idea and your instincts are very likely good ones.

      • Martha on July 8, 2014 at 8:12 am

        Thanks for the encouraging words and I’ll continue to “muse” the prospect. For the most part, I trust my instincts, yet maintain an opened door.

  3. Lynn Ross on July 8, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Thank you for your words. I always enjoy reading about how you do it, but I’m with Martha who said she now understands why she sticks to non-fiction and poetry. But mainly I lack self-discipline. I carry a small notebook in my purse that used to be filled with amazing pieces of insight that were supposed to be the beginnings of great essays. I have an amazing imagination, but as my voice teacher once told me in one of her many exasperated moments with me, “It’s 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

  4. Debbie Haupt on July 8, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Emilie, the words you put together in your “non-romantic” self writer’s guide is poetry to this non-writer. Thank you for this as well as all your beautiful posts

  5. Linda Topp on July 9, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    That was a great blog. I know I can’t write a novel* (lack of imagination, I think), but that description of writing is accurate for non-fiction or even technical writing. Just write something!

    *Although I would really love to experience that idea that “the character did the writing.” It sounds so mysterious and luscious.

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