Excerpt: 'This Year You Write Your Novel'
3. Where to Begin
Probably the highest hurdle for the novice novelist (and many seasoned veterans) is writing the first few words. That beginning is a very emotional moment for most of us.
There are all kinds of ways for people to cajole themselves into starting their book. Some get a special pen or a particular desk set at a window looking out on something beautiful. Others play a favorite piece of music, light a candle, burn incense, or set up some other ritual that makes them feel empowered and optimistic. If this is what you find you must do to write — well... okay. Rituals frighten me. I worry that if I need a special pen or desk or scent to start me out, what will happen when I lose that pen or I'm on vacation or a business trip and my window looks out on the city dump?
My only ritual for writing is that I do it every morning. I wake up and get to work. If I'm in a motel in Mobile — so be it. If I am up all night, and morning is two o'clock in the afternoon, well, that's okay too.
The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn't have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen — or into the tape recorder, if you work like that.
Your first sentence will start you out, but don't let it trip you up.
If you are the intuitive type, just sit down and start writing the novel:
Lamont had only enough cash to buy half a pint of whiskey at Bob's Liquor Emporium, but he knew it wouldn't be enough. Ragman was dead, and that was at least a quart's worth of mourning.
What does it mean? How should I know? Those were the first words that came out. I'm not going to worry about it; I'm just going to keep on writing until either something clicks or I lose momentum. If it doesn't seem to be working, I'll start with a new first sentence. I'll keep on like that until something strikes my fancy and I have enough of a handle on the story to continue.
The next morning I read what I wrote the day before, making only the most superficial changes, and then continue on my way. This is all you have to do. Sit down once a day to the novel and start working without internal criticism, without debilitating expectations, without the need to look at your words as if they were already printed and bound.
The beginning is only a draft. Drafts are imperfect by definition.
If you are the structured kind of writer, you might start by getting the outline of your novel down on paper. You know the story already, but now you have to get it down scene after scene, chapter after chapter.
Every day, you sit down, just like the intuitive writer, writing what it is you think your story is about. You discover new characters, add little thumbnail sketches of them; you make notes about the feeling you want to get here and there. You create the whole book out of bulleted phrases and sentences, paragraphs and maybe even flowcharts.
Finally the day will arrive when you come to the end of the outline. The story is set, at least theoretically, and now you must follow the road that the intuitive writer takes. You sit down with your outline somewhere in the room and start writing the prose. You begin with a sentence and keep on going. Maybe you will follow the plan assiduously; maybe you will be diverted onto another path that will lead you far from your original ideas.
Whatever the case, the work is the same. Some days will be rough, unbearable; some will be sublime. Pay no attention to these feelings. All you have to do is write your novel this year. Happy or sad, the story has to come out.
Stick to your schedule. Try to write a certain amount every day — let's say somewhere between 600 and 1,200 words. Do not labor over what's been written. Go over yesterday's work cursorily to reorient yourself, then move on. If you find at some point that you have lost the thread of your story, take a few days to reread all you have written, not with the intention of rewriting (though a little editing is unavoidable) but with the intention of refamiliarizing yourself with the entire work.
Using this method, you should have a first draft of the novel in about three months. It won't be publishable. It won't be pretty. It probably won't make logical sense. But none of that matters. What you will have in front of you is the heart of the book that you wish to write.
There is no greater moment in the true writer's life.
Your first draft is like a rich uncultivated field for the farmer: it is waiting for you to bring it into full bloom.
The midlands of the novel
The beginning of the novel is hard, but it's only a few sentences and you're off on your tale. The end is also difficult because it has to make sense out of all that's gone before. In the rewriting phase of your process, you may spend weeks worrying over a satisfying end point.
But despite all this, it is the middle of your novel, that great expanse of storytelling, that is the most difficult part. How, you ask yourself, do I keep the story going for all those hundreds of pages?
What you have to remember is that a novel is the one and the many. There is an overarching story, and then there are all the smaller narratives that come together to make up that larger tale.
So in the case of Bob, Ramona, and Lyle, we have many bases to cover before we can come to a satisfying conclusion. Ramona must come into sync (through conflict) with Bob and Lyle: the same is true for Lyle and his father. We also have the police, the criminals, the judicial system, and Bob's in-laws to understand. Each character and element involved in the circumstances of this tragedy must be plumbed for us to understand and feel the evolution of that character — especially Bob's.
Keeping these notions in mind, you will find that the novel in some important way writes itself. You know the characters; you know the circumstances — now you must make sure that the reader is aware of every factor that makes up the tale.
You will find yourself in the cell with more than one murderer. You will find yourself in Bob's and Lyle's memories of their lost family members. You will experience the police officer's exasperation with Bob's apparent cowardice. You will come to understand Bob's loveless life, and then you will see how, in a very different way, Ramona has always sought after love.
And with each one of these substories, more of the larger tale will be revealed. Is it a story of forgiveness or retribution, a slow death or a rebirth?
The midlands of your novel can be treacherous, but the map is in the beginning of your story, where the characters are introduced and the conflict occurs. How this conflict is resolved is the content of your tale. There are many strands that must come together into a whole cloth — this is your novel.
There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away — even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?
All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can't go on until these questions are answered.
Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.
I almost always do the research for my books toward the end of the last draft. By that time I know the book is written and that my creative energies will not be sapped by needless fretting.
I have to admit that I'm not the best source when it comes to research. It's not one of my strong suits. I write books about places I've been and people I like to think I understand.
I've known writers who have spent years in libraries and foreign lands researching the topics of their novels. There's nothing I can say about that. If you need to go to South Africa for a month (or five years) to get the feeling for your book, then do it. When you come back and you're ready to write, my little how-to book will be waiting for you.
From the book This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley. © 2007 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.