Filed under: writing

I hate starting to write a new book. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, because it’s a perennial problem. I have, to date, started a fair number of them—including the ones that haven’t been published, it’s at least 21 or 22, maybe more—but it still never becomes any easier or more pleasant.

There are too many things that can go wrong. I know, from experience, that these things will work themselves out in time. I know that I can fix anything that’s wrong, and if worse comes to worse, I can start over. (I wrote close to 20,000 words of Getting Away With It before realising I’d done it wrong, so I had to cut it and start over. And then start over again. And then again.)

I know that the act of writing a book teaches you how to write a book, and that therefore there’s no better way to start a book than to start it, even if you do it wrong at first. Nevertheless, starting a new book is a huge leap of faith. Even if you know the idea is good—even if you’ve discussed it already with your agent and editor, and they’re enthusiastic—that still doesn’t guarantee that you can do the idea justice. There’s a very good chance that you will spend weeks, maybe months, writing something you’ll end up deleting. And although that’s okay, the doubt is still enormous.

Whenever I start thinking about a book, I have a huge, miraculous idea in my head of what the story will be. The act of writing it down inevitably reduces my idea, makes it finite, makes it smaller. And that’s okay, too: as a reader, I’m more interested in small, concrete ideas embodied in actual people and events than in big, abstract, vague ideas. Even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about taking one’s lovely vision and subjecting it to the limits of one’s own ability, making it fit the size of a page.

When people ask me how to get started writing, I usually tell them: ‘Just write.’ And yet, for me, just sitting down and starting a book requires a particular state of mind. I have to be full enough of the story not to care that I might be mucking it up. I need to be determined enough to keep on writing words that I may well delete. I need to be swelling, pregnant, desperate to get this story down and out of my head.

Because otherwise, it’s too frightening. It’s too much hard work. I would rather spend my time researching, doing character quizzes, getting ready.

Strangely enough, once I have started, I never have any trouble whatsoever carrying on. It’s as if there’s this wall I have to break through, and once it’s down, it stays down. Writing the middle and ending isn’t hard for me. I enjoy the routine of sitting down and picking up the threads of the story, forging ahead, 1000 to 2000 words a day. If I could start the novel in the middle I would probably find it easier, but unfortunately I’m a chronological, accumulative writer so it would be just as bewildering.

Anyway, I’ve been putting off starting this latest novel for a few weeks, but last week I sat down and I started it. It was difficult. I whined a lot.

And then something miraculous happened: the characters took over. It happened on about page four. And now, suddenly, I’m not at the beginning any more. I’m in the middle of the beginning. And I can’t wait to write more.

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  1. Great post, Julie. Your style comes across in a blog. Can’t believe you’ve written that many novels. I’m in awe! And you don’t look old enough!

  2. Thanks Julie-Ann. Very nice of you to say I don’t look old enough! 21 novels in 12 years isn’t that much; I had to slow down when my son was born. 😉

  3. Sigh. I know that beginning feeling… And the feeling that there are so many possibilities of how you could do it, so many potential paths to go down, that it’s easy to feel paralysed by the choice. Glad to know it’s not just me!

    • Definitely paralysed by choice. Also, I think I’ve become more paralysed by choice as I’ve written bigger books.

  4. But I want you to tell me it gets easier :O).

    I’m so glad you’re starting a new book. Can’t wait to read it 🙂

    • Well, it gets a little easier, Lacey, in that it gets familiar.

      But it’s still hard. :-/

  5. Great post. I’ve certainly been through all those feelings. The important thing, as you say, is to get going and keep going until the characters take over, or if not the characters, then some inner compulsion in the narrative does it. I suspect that the same is true for non fiction, obviously then it’s not the characters, but there must be a reason why the book has to be written, and once you’ve connected with that, then it will drive you on.
    I think the question as to whether to start at the beginning, or the middle, or wherever, matters less. It,s probably a matter of personal taste. I’ve seen middles become beginnings starts become middles and beginnings get the book started and then get dropped altogether. Whatever works, works, just do it. I’m sure I saw a picture on your blog once of a post-it note that said “Write crap”, that is surely part of the same process. Write, just write, and it goes from there. The weird thing is that sometimes it’s so hard, and yet it is also so easy.

    • Definitely, Rod. Beginnings can end up being anywhere in the final book. And whatever works, works. Though it is hard sometimes to write when you know you’re just going to delete it, it does help to know that it’s all part of the process.

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