How to begin a new novel and…

FireI am in the midst of working on my fourth novel Indulgence in the Afternoon. A friend of mine is starting her first. I’ll call her Marie (her real name). She asked me to give her some “pointers” about writing a novel. After telling her she shouldn’t read any “how to” books, I am now engaged in the contradictory effort of writing this to give her (and myself) some direction. It’s a form of literary self-talk with someone listening (who isn’t a dreaded psychiatrist).

The reason why I suggested she not read any books on how to approach this most difficult task is because she was telling me that she was trying to follow the advice in the book: what should be achieved on the first page; the “arc” of the story; characters…. Of course, she was paralyzed.

It reminded me of instructing someone how to walk across the room:

“Getting up from a chair will involve all four quadriceps muscles which are inserted into the tibia. They all originate from the femur, with the exception of the rectus femoris, which originates from the ilium (highest bone on the pelvis), which allows it to play a role in hip flexion…”

Hey, wake up.

Instead of this kind of direction, I hear the voice of my mother. My youngest brother has always been thoughtful, which resulted in his being tardy (a.k.a. slow, but only in a time-sense) at doing everything from writing an essay to finishing his dinner.

My mother used to say to him, “Paul, just start. And then finish.”

Paul still takes a long time over his dinner but he has become a successful engineer, a partner in a large company engaged in building roads.

Aren’t you getting off track?


Why is this relevant to me?

Because, while writing is a solitary task, you’ll inevitably be accompanied by various voices in your head which, unless you train them, are sure to foul you up. Whether the voices say: “who do you think you are, writing a novel?” or: “what you just wrote is so brilliant” — they will foul you up. You need to nurture a “good enough” voice. Which refers to the philosophy of a “good enough” mother.

“Who do you think you are?” is crippling. “This is so brilliant” is false. The one will prevent you from getting ahead; the other will prevent you from editing out all the really sloppy, easy, sentimental, half-cocked stuff you’ve managed to put on the page. (Now whose voice is that?)

I have, over time, developed a “good enough” writing companion. She says things like: “Leslie, just start. And then finish.” She makes me laugh.

This voice is also useful to me if I have a flat tire on my trailer pulling my boat through a beautiful, lonely stretch of road in the rain forest. Gosh, it sure feels like I have a flat tire. So I pull over. Yes, it’s a flat tire. I get back in my van and put my arms on the steering wheel and my head on my arms. Then the voice: well, my dear, you have a problem. But you can’t just sit here. You need to do something.

Writing sometimes feels like pulling a boat along a lonely road, a boat that you’re going to put in the water and have a wonderful time in this craft perfectly made for the element in which you want to travel. And you have a flat tire.

I’m stuck out here in the middle of beautiful nowhere. My head on my hands on my desk…

“Well, my dear, you have to do something.”

And, in the writing world, that “something” is: write.

It is an act of faith. Meaning that even if you don’t have it, you have to pretend that you do. The voice says: “I understand. You can’t write the next thing these characters are supposed to do, so just write it.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“Yes. I understand. Just go ahead.”

That’s how it works. That’s my “good enough” voice.

The main character in Indulgence in the Afternoon, Lucinda Yates, is an actress. She is always terrified before she goes on stage. This is what she says about it:

On stage, everything was at stake.

Running and tripping and getting up and running until the thermal airstreams caught her and lifted her above the fear. She never thought it could, before it did. Once she felt it, she always knew it would. She could fly.

Writing is also something like that.

The next thing Good Enough reminds me is that whatever I write will be really awful. So don’t re-read it. Just write and write and write. When you’re well fortified (not by tequila but by some morning drink which isn’t tequila) then you can read it, knowing that — being assured that – it’s going to be awful.

Finally, for now, I remind myself to “follow the heat”. What this means is that no matter what I’ve planned to write, or what I am in the midst of writing, if I can feel that the heat — the warmth, passion, interest — something like that — is pointing me or leading me in another direction, follow it.

Give me an example.

Yesterday I was writing a scene between Lucinda and her lover. She saw, on her lover’s desk, a love note from someone else. I was in the midst of having Lucinda thrash around with jealousy when I could feel that the heat was somewhere else. I kept writing, following the warmth. Instead of having her tear around in her jealousy, Lucinda thinks: Close the thing, put it slowly back down on the dresser and open your heart like never before.

Where the heat is, is where your creative urge takes you. It’s not some spooky, flakey notion. It’s just how it works. You can count on it. Follow.

If Marie writes me back about these directions, I’ll let you know what she says. And how we’re both doing.

One Response to “How to begin a new novel and…”

  1. Diane Giroux

    Maugham wrote (and I love this):
    “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”