when you’re starting your novel –
The Perfect Start
‘To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start.’ TS Eliot
The perfect first sentence is the last thing you need to worry about. You will be better equipped to work out where you start your story, how, why and with the slant you need, after you have finished your first draft. There is no point in sweating about your perfect first sentence until then, or even later. If something wonderful comes to you, note it down but if nothing comes, don’t worry.
In Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947) the character Joseph Grand is a 50 year old city clerk, lovely man, who spends so much time honing the first sentence of his novel that by the time the plague gets to him, he has nothing written but lots of versions of it. Camus shows us cleverly how no matter how Grand shuffles his sub-clauses, the sentence just gets worse.
When you’re ready to start on your first draft, get cracking – start somewhere, anywhere – and at all costs keep going. Tidy as you go, then press on. Keep notes of afterthoughts but do not let them hold you back. Once you have a finished first draft, you have something to work on.
Some How-to-write books talk about ‘finding your voice’ as if it’s something you need to summon up before you start on your book. Your writing voice is nothing more than the way of putting words together that’s special to you alone. It includes all sorts of things like the sort of subject you choose, your personality and tone, and your unique way of building a scene. When we hear a stray phrase on the radio and go ‘Ah yes, that’s Dickens’ even when you’re not sure which of his books it comes from, that’s you recognising Dickens’ ‘voice’.
Your voice is everything and nothing and is not something you need to think about at this stage. The more writing you do, the more you’ll settle into confidence on the page. Just let yourself get used to writing being a happy, low key place where you can play with your characters and story, gather your skills and ideas, try this or that while all the time – and you’ll hardly notice it – the flow of your words grows more and more secure. Occasionally you’ll produce something that feels right, something you know might work in your first draft. Off it goes into that first draft file, waiting for other pieces like it. In no time, your pages are stacking up, some of them spot on, some less so, but the trick is to keep writing because it’s only by keeping that flow going that the good stuff can come.
Let me tell you a secret: this way of writing, this process is very common among writers. We experiment and play with the story like this and you are no less a writer for doing it too.
Brilliant writing (‘Is my writing good enough?’)
Here’s a paradox: the less you worry about the quality of your writing and write lots around your book, the happier you will grow in the act of writing and the more likely you are to hit seams of the good stuff. Your critical faculties will have their turn later but while you’re discovering your first draft, let that wait.
Most people (some writers call them ‘civilians’) think that books are delivered to the writer’s pen or screen in minty fresh perfection in as much time as it takes them to read it. That is not the case. All published writers, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners too, redraft many times.
Just keep reminding yourself that the civilians mean well and please do NOT be tempted to show them your workings. You’re building up your confidence in your own voice with your page as your playground: an assault of fault-finding at the wrong time could kill your desire to write. The time for criticism will come; your first draft is not it.
SHORTCUT TO A HAPPIER WRITING LIFE
Whenever people ask how your writing is going, thank them for asking. Say that your book is fun and it’s going well but books do take time. Did they know that Hilary Mantel took ten years to write her first book, the French Revolution one? Reassure them that they’ll be the first to know when you get a publisher and no, they’re not in your story. (They won’t believe this last bit and will be desperate to buy it when the time comes.)
Doing everything in the right order
Should you worry about doing everything in the right order? There is no right order.
Lack of finished pages
You are writing around your book like mad and have a general idea where your story might be going. In fact, it all feels really exciting and you have more confidence in it, in everything, than ever before. But you don’t feel like a proper writer because proper writers have megabytes building up of warm-as-fresh-bread, perfect pages ready to send off to an agent. You’ve got no pages at all.
Rome wasn’t built in a day or even in a whole wet weekend. Don’t worry, it’ll come.
It’s all been written before
No, it hasn’t. There may or may not be a limited number of stories we enjoy (more on this another day) but every day writers are producing something ‘new under the sun’ because never in all the millennia of human existence has anybody ever had your life. Nobody (not even your twin) has grown up in your family with your personality, your struggles and joys, in your time with your particular take on things. That brings a unique spin to everything you write. Even Shakespeare used other people’s storylines in his own distinctive way. Keep challenging yourself to write only what feels true, not second-hand or hackneyed, and keep it engaging.
So don’t be afraid. Go for it!