How do we get started?

How do we find the story? Wool-gathering and potholing

The perfect novel isn’t going to land on your page any more than it did for Tolstoy. Books don’t write themselves. What imagery works best for you about this? Would it help to feel that you need to hunt your book down? Gestate it and give it birth? Hew it from its rock, chip by chip, like Michelangelo’s prisoner sculptures?

One of my favourite images for starting a novel is catching a horse in a field. I used to know horsey people and found myself standing in a field in Kent one day with a head collar in one hand and a carrot in the other. The minute the pony became aware of me, she’d prick her ears and alertness would shiver the length of her body. If I took a step towards her, she’d spring away into the depths of the field and hide among the trees. Later I learned that if I held my body at 45 degrees to her and looked askance while walking up to her, she would stand still and dip her head for me, and let the head collar slide over her muzzle and ears without any need for the carrot at all.

It can be the same with our stories: if we stride after them too firmly, they run for cover. Sometimes we need to bide our time and let the story come to us as gently as we go toward it. It’s the act of writing day after day that brings us and our stories together.

Be kind to yourself while you’re developing these muscles. If you find you can’t just face it one day, don’t give up. Just go back to 15 minutes a day or so for a while. If you’re a true writer, you’ll still long to write and will always feel better writing something than nothing. The only bad writing day is one when you don’t write at all.

What do you write during these limbering sessions? It’s a big mistake to think that your book will arrive with you in a state of perfection and all you have to do is catch it. Now and again, if you’re very blessed, that can happen but mostly we redraft. Everybody redrafts. Even the mighty Hemingway said that all first drafts are shit, and he knew his job. So when I’m limbering up, I go wool-gathering.

This is easy, and helps you feel that being in the company of your book is fun. You’ll feel too that your book is coming along wonderfully, even if you haven’t got a page to show for it yet. You’re interviewing your characters and getting to know their secrets, prowling about in your book’s world, sniffing the bins, enjoying the meals and sea views, sitting in your fictional bars and gym locker rooms, generally getting to know what you’re going to write about. Here’s the good news: you can’t get this wrong. If you go back to something the following day and produce something different, just choose the better one. Even happier news is that while you’re relaxed and happily wool-gathering, there will be times when you’ll write something that shines with life and can go straight into your book.

Potholing is a variation on wool-gathering and is about you. What do you want out of this book? Why are you writing it? What excites you most about it, and why? Something doesn’t work; any idea why? If you pot-hole around it, you might find a way to make it the most exciting bit of all.

It’s all just scribbling but I believe that wool-gathering and potholing are the biggest shortcuts of all. They do so many things:

  • They give you an invaluable sense that writing is fun, easy and a joyous place to be.
  • They make it easier to develop your regular writing practice.
  • You get a sense of pages stacking up. Even if they’re not publishable yet, you have something to work on.
  • They induce a sense of excited relaxation, a sense of adventure that can produce freer, better writing.
  • You can produce whole sections that will be useful when you start to work on your first draft.

Wool-gathering and potholing don’t stop once you start your draft; you can keep doing them for as long as you like. They always help.

Happy scribbling!


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