How to start a novel: The willingness to be the best and the worst
Published: November 22, 2006
Writing fiction is like allowing yourself to be the ugliest person in the room and the most beautiful person at the same time. The 'beautiful' you swans into the party, garnering admiration, presuming that everyone else will be interested in what you have to say -- about anything. The 'ugly' you would prefer to cower in the kitchen, scoffing leftovers in the dark.
Albyn Leah Hall is the author of two novels: The Rhythm of the Road (published by St. Martin's Press, January 2007; $24.95US/$31.00CAN; 0-312-35944-6) and Deliria, (published by Serpent's Tail, 1994.)
It's a schizoid existence. The part of you that is dying to be heard is chronically at odds with the part of you that fears exposure, rejection, or being just plain bad, which brings me to my next point. In order to write a novel, you must be willing to be bad. This is especially true in the first draft; it is, arguably, what the first draft is for. (Or, in keeping with the analogy, in order to be beautiful, you must be ugly first.)
There is no easy way to do this. Every writer has his or her own way of wrestling with the demons, and I can't tell you how to wrestle with yours. However, I can suggest some techniques which I use when starting a novel; simple strategies which help to free me from my inhibitions and create a space for the work to emerge.
1) When you begin a novel, rather than thinking you must write for, say, a minimum of four to six hours a day, try only to write for one hour maximum. This means you may write for no more than one hour! Most of us harbor an image of the tortured writer; the pacing, hair-pulling novelist locked up in a chicken shed while the world spins without him. And yet, while writing inevitably entails some pain and struggle, the stereotype of the suffering, workaholic writer is your enemy. The first draft is when you must pull something out of nothing: words from the ether, or from your unconscious. If you impose a tough regime upon it before it has had a chance to breathe, you will stifle it. If, rather, you write in bite-sized pieces, tantalizing yourself with just a little each day, then eventually you will want to write more, and take delicious pleasure in breaking your own rule. (However, while you don't have to write much each day, it is important to write every day, including Sunday, even if that means just a quick scribble before brushing your teeth -- you've still observed the rule.)
Lest you think this sounds frivolous -- a hobbyist approach to writing -- I must confess that there was a time when I thought the same thing. I didn't understand why I couldn't write for hours, or even, sometimes, minutes; why I spent most of my time staring at my computer screen longing to be anywhere but there. It was a severe blow to my sense of identity; I was a writer who could not write! When a friend suggested the hour max rule, I tried it with reluctance. A year later, I had written my first novel.
In later drafts, you will probably want to write for longer. This is great, so long as you bear in mind that good writing doesn't always come from abundance. I can think of many days in which I have produced far more inspired writing after one hour than on other days when I wrote for six.
2) Write your first draft in longhand. This doesn't mean you have to write the entire draft this way, but write each chapter or section by hand before transferring it to the computer. The computer tends to make us feel that we must be excellent immediately. We are daunted by the pristine white space before us, which we think we must fill with something polished and literary. Writing by hand, ideally in some tatty old notebook, gives you permission to be messy and primitive. (The notebook is also far more portable. If you're sick of your four walls, shake up your routine; write in cafes, parks, trains. Occasionally, the noise of the natural world can help rather than hinder, a welcome relief from the more punitive voices of your own head.)
It isn't until my second or maybe third draft that I do what I tastefully call "mining the vomit for gold," transferring the work to computer, and in the process, honing the quality of the writing itself. But for now, it's a mess, and if it isn't, it should be. Scrawl and scribble; spew it out. This is as true for work that is autobiographical and work that isn't remotely autobiographical; as true for comedy as an epic period novel. Like good dreams and bad dreams, it all comes from the same place. If you give yourself time to dwell there, "literature" will follow when it is good and ready.
3) Stay away from the phone, internet and emails until you have written for the day. In keeping with this, it is a good idea to write early, not only because you will be less distracted by the clutter of the day, but because you will be closer to your unconscious mind and dream state. Even if you only write for fifteen minutes, the quality of your attention will be much, much better if you have not yet filled your head with other people and the many things you have to do. Even something as prosaic as shopping for lunch or having the car fixed can throw you off completely. You'll be amazed by how difficult it feels at first, removed from your social 'fixes.' This is a sobering reminder of just how addicted we are to these things, and how often we use them to procrastinate! (Yet it is also a liberating, if humbling, experience to realize that our friends, colleagues, and household chores can usually hang on without us for a little longer.)
4) When you start a novel, do not worry about having a great story. The search for the 'great story' is, in my view, overrated. I speak only partly in jest when I say that there are roughly half a dozen stories in the world and most books are variations upon them. The story is only as interesting as the person who is telling it. If you have a strong voice, the reader will follow it through anything. You can write a wonderful book which, on the surface, simply describes a party (think of Mrs. Dalloway, or The Dead) or a dreadful book about a prison break or espionage. When people ask how I worked out the story for my latest novel, The Rhythm of the Road, I reply that I didn't, to start with. I found Josephine, my young heroine, and she told me the story. How did I find Josephine? One night, I was watching a documentary about a middle-aged housewife who stalks a young priest, convinced that he shares her obsession. I wondered what it would take for a person to become so delusional that she is driven to behave this way. Josephine, a teenage truck driver's daughter, has little in common with this woman, but the first glimmer was ignited on that evening, by my own curiosity. Like giving birth, I conceived her, but she seemed to develop in her own right. She did so partly through my research, (I'm a great believer in research, which will also help to develop the story), but also from a place within myself, a place that could empathize with a young girl so lonely that she must conjure a fantasy relationship to fill the void. In the end, it seemed to be she who was introducing me to her lonely Irish father, to the hitchhiker who becomes the object of her attention, and so on. When I could finally see how the book was unraveling, I did sit down and work out an outline for the entire story. But I could not do this until I had Josephine's voice. So remember that a story can begin in all sorts of ways, no matter how prosaic: with a question, with the way a piece of music makes you feel, with a joke, a dream, a memory, a three minute conversation you overhear in a bus. You can find an entire universe in a single moment.
Of course, I am only one writer and this is only one set of tools. Yet whether they work for you, I believe that the underlying philosophy applies to all writers of fiction; to write anything good, you must first be willing to take the ugly, messy, chaotic self out into the light, take it for a run, let it tell you where to go. One of the greatest compliments ever paid to me as a writer was "you must feel pretty good about yourself to let yourself feel this bad." And yet, the funny thing is that once I do allow myself to feel 'this bad,' it doesn't feel too bad at all. At the very least, I've gotten a novel or two out of it.
Copyright © 2006 Albyn Leah Hall
Albyn Leah Hall is the author of two novels: The Rhythm of the Road (published by St. Martin's Press, January 2007; $24.95US/$31.00CAN; 0-312-35944-6) and Deliria, (published by Serpent's Tail, 1994.) She is also a screenwriter; her screenplay, The Rose of Tralee, is currently in development. Albyn's childhood was divided between New York and Los Angeles, but she has spent most of her adult life in London, where she works as both a writer and a psychotherapist.
--Posted Nov. 22, 2006