Starting a novel. Here’s my dream.
Dream 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?
- Immediately introduce my major character and show conflict on the horizon
- Sow seeds for the multiple interwoven stories to come
- Add an action scene to description and dialogue
- Give a glimpse of an important issue that will figure into the story
- Introduce two men who will play important roles in my major character’s life
- Set the scene, both region, town and particular place
- 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.