Recently, I began writing my new novel. I wrote 9000 words in the first two days, a personal best. But something was missing. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement or satisfaction. The next morning I re-read what I’d written and realised they were the wrong 9000 words so I scrapped them. Then I began again.
It’s often said that starting a new novel is a bit like embarking on a fresh love affair. There’s the same tingle of anticipation, the same sense of endless possibility and hoped-for perfection. It used to be like this for me. It isn’t anymore. I don’t know where or when things changed but they did. Maybe it’s the burden of experience but these days starting a new novel feels like rowing up a hill backwards. The sea of possibilities that once seemed so seductive was now paralysing. If you can say anything what exactly do you say? Where do you begin?
You’d think it would get easier with each book. You’d think you’d develop a certain muscle memory that would see you through the early stages but it doesn’t work like that, at least not for me. Each book seems to get that much harder and each book is like having to learn to write all over again. TS Eliot said it better than I ever could in Four Quartets:
“Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion….
….For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
The other day I came to the horrible realisation that I’d started Book 5 the wrong way. I’d written 9000 words, they weren’t very good – they never are at this stage – but it was hard to let them go. Hard to see the typed pile of paper disappear. But I had to do it. My sense of discomfort stemmed from the fact that deep down, when I was writing them, I knew they were wrong. The structure was exactly the same as my previous two novels. Even though all the details, characters and locations, were different it felt like I was writing the same book. That is one reason books get harder, especially if you’re writing a series. There are only so many expressions and ways to describe the same scene. How do you write them differently every time and still keep it realistic?
When I started again, it immediately felt much better. Like a pair of shoes you refuse to accept are uncomfortable until you slip on something else and realise the difference straight away. The words weren’t very good, the plotting was still shaky, I was trying something new, but at the same time it freed my writing to go into new territory. And that evening I felt the feeling all writers crave and strive for, that raw exhilaration after having written new material, the sense of possibilities unspooling like a highway into the dimmed horizon.
So, here are a few tips for starting that new novel:
1. Write every day – it seems superfluous to say and there will be bad days, there always are, but it’s only by creating a routine and a rhythm that books gets written. Like the proverbial shark, first drafts have to keep moving or they die.
2. Don’t Look Back! – Don’t ever look back at what you’ve written until you’ve finished the first draft. This is perhaps the most common cause of that strange disease, author paralysis. Hemingway said the first draft of anything was always crap and who’s to argue with Hem? So forget what you’ve written, don’t think about it until the next run-through, there’s going to be plenty of chances to re-write it.
3. Don’t second-guess your instincts. Go with whatever impulse you have. If the plot doesn’t work you can always fix it in the next draft.
4. Write what you don’t know you know. When you type fast enough the words begin to pour quicker than you can consciously think and the subconscious takes over. Most of my best plot twists and ideas have come from typing fast enough to short circuit the mind.
5. Everything can be fixed. This can’t be emphasised enough so don’t stress on how bad your first draft is, just finish it and then make it better in successive drafts.