This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I prepare to go to possibly one of most beautiful places in the world with a group of writers planning to do just that. Having written three novels already, I should have the answer off-pat, but the truth is that each of my novels started in slightly different places, and I would find it impossible to pinpoint the moment they entered my dreams, although I could tell you exactly when I realised – AHA! – that they contained enough juice to sustain a whole novel.
This is when three things crystalise and come together in the middle of my ‘dreamy this could be a novel’ state – an abstract emotion I know I want to capture, a character that won’t stop talking to me and whom I’m interested enough in to spend at least a year with, and a question I want to answer for myself. So Something Beginning With was a) emotion – longing, b) Verity (who had been a fairly minor character in one of my short stories) and c) what happens when someone won’t admit their true love is actually their best friend. My second novel Tell Me Everything was the result of the connections between a) emotion – longing (hmmm… pattern here?), b) Molly, who epitomises for me the pain of someone who has always been told (and now believes) that they cause bad things to happen, and c) what happens to the other people around when someone decides to make up their own story. And lastly Getting the Picture was a) emotion – determination to have a second chance, b) hard to say who my main character was here – Martin and George share it for me, and c) a question I was asked and which I still think about – are you ever to old to cry over love?
I should also add a fourth thing – and this is that I have a very clear visual picture of my ending before I begin. However, it should be said that I’ve never used this particular image – yet – but it helps me to at least feel I have a destination in mind, particularly in the lost winding loooonnngggg roads in the middle….!
And here are some extracts from published interviews with other writers about how it worked for them. They are mostly taken from Glimmer Train’s great sister publication, Writers Ask, and then I did what I increasingly do these days, I ‘Asked Twitter’…
Carol Shields: “I develop as I go. I have a structure in mind, though. I always see the structure before I know what’s going to be in the structure, and it’s a very physical image that I can call up, just the way you would call up an image on your screen…. But for each novel I’ve had rather a different structure, but its been important for me to have that. But I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t fully know the character of my main character when I start out. So that character opens for me exactly as it opens for the reader, piece by piece, layer by layer.
Q: And you don’t know the whole plot when you are starting?
CS: I don’t know the whole plot. Sometimes I know where I want to go to, I just don’t know how I’m going to get there, and this can be frightening for a writer… Most writers do say that while they are in the state of writing a novel, or as Dorothy parker used to say, ‘undergoing a novel’, your antenna are up somehow. And so you are catching all sorts of things that you might not catch if you were not in the process of writing a novel, and some of these experiences seem to be uniquely offered to you. It’s as though your whole world is suddenly available to you to use.
Ha Jin: Usually with a kind of feeling triggered by an event or something that will bother me. That’s the best situation. If something bothers me, I have to write about it in order to let the feeling out. That usually produces the best outcome. But stories don’t always come that way, especially with a novel. It may start with an event or a feeling but down the road there will be a lot of labor and research, depending on how much energy I have and how stubborn I am.
I always know the main direction of the story. Otherwise, I will waste a lot of time. Without an ending, I can’t start a story. Sometimes I plan an ending; it needs to be revised later on. But from the very beginning I need a sense of the direction, or I’ll be groping around without knowing where I’m going. (WA, 33)
Jayne Anne Phillips: I work according to language. I work starting with language, so that my process is simply to work my way into the next sentence. Sustaining the voice of a book is level one, where I have to stay to move forward. I work very slowly, until I find my way into the middle of the book and I know what to write next by reading what I’ve already written until I know where to go next. (WA, 30)
Elizabeth Cox: With a novel I might have several situations, and some idea is driving me: the killing of a brother, the break-up of a family, the friendship between a black girl and a white girl and the difficulty they have bringing that friendship into their adult lives. So the novel form has a larger problem that drives me.
Sue Miller: Usually (ideas) come as a vague notion, an idea of what I want to be talking about. Then I begin to imagine situations which would convey that idea or contain it, and then I begin to people the situations with characters. It starts abstractly for me, but it happens closely together. I’m not pondering an abstraction for a long time. One comes on the heels of another, but it’s the idea that interests me first.
There’s always been some level of research in every book that I’ve done. For The Good Mother, I did a lot of research about contested divorce cases, which I didn’t know anything about, and the civil institutions that deal with custody issues. I read a lot of trial transcripts, and went and sat in on some civil cases – you can’t sit in on custody cases – just to get a sense of the courtroom. There are usually things that I have to learn. It gets me out into the world, asking questions about characters’ lives. (WA, 28)
Charles Johnson: The engine of fiction is character. Everything comes out of the people. All you have to worry about is knowing who they are. This may involve research. You must know your characters and their situations. If you are faithful to how they would respond to things and you don’t treat them as puppets to illustrate your own ideas, they you’ll have revelations and you’ll have a story or a novel.’ (WA36)
Edward P Jones: (With ‘The Known World’, he started with twelve pages, six were the beginning chapter, and the other six pages were the final chapter’ ) I knew it was going to be a novel. I just had to work out what the resolution would be. In so many things you read, the resolution isn’t quite there.
Amy Bloom: I spend a lot of time looking out the window, walking around the house, watching daytime television, talking to my friends, going to the grocery store. There’s probably material anywhere you look. Everybody’s lives are full and mysterious and unexpected. It’s just a question of whether or not you’re paying attention, whether or not you want to stand around long enough to let them tell it to you, or imagine it. (WA31)
And then I asked writers on Twitter about how they got started, here are some of their answers:
@word_seeker “how do you start writing…” sometimes an object sparks an idea; where it came from; who owned it..
@emmi_elina For me, it’s ‘What if there was a world in which…?’ The world comes first and brings the characters and story with it.
@virginiamoffatt The one I’m working on started with me always imagining ghosts in the house we lived & then wondering what they’d say…
…and seven and a half years later, kind of amazed by what’s come out of that one thought…(still unfinished though!)
@JaneRusbridge With an image of a character – like a snapshot – which won’t go away, and comes with an accompanying emotion, again and again
(I asked Jane if this image was always the main character..)
@JaneRusbridge No. Not a known character at that stage, but with both novels, did turn out to be main character. And image grows into a scene.
@SteveHimmer An image or scene, usually meant as the start of the novel but by the time the story earns it, that scene has become the end.
@belledelettres usually with something that makes me so angry I have to write about it.
@RussellScott3 Different novels need to start different ways. The purpose of the novel determines how it’s arrived at.
(I asked him what the “purpose of the novel” might be…)
@RussellScott3 I came to the novel by way of screenwriting, so you are given essentially a task by the films producers and you write to that.
@ruthwarburton usually an idea or a scene that’s sticking in my head that I want to write.
@ScorpioScribble A ‘what if’ and a character (or characters) who won’t stop talking to me!
I’ll write more about some of the themes and exercises we’re going to be covering next week later, but I hope you find this round-up as fascinating as I do, and of course, do let me know how YOU start your own writing, is it with an emotion, image, nagging question, character…? I guess what this proves is that part of the joy of writing a novel is the puzzle of working out the answers for yourself!