Monday, July 14, 2014

Summertime reruns: Starting a Novel

Today's Novel Matters rerun comes from Bonnie Grove. It first appeared in May, 2012.

Happy summer!

I’m not in the habit of quoting Zig Zigler, but the dude once said, "You don’t have to be great to start you have to start to be great." 

It’s a nice quote if you can picture saying it sans the fist-pump and jazzercise music playing ubiquitous at those brain-washing seminars.
Beginning a novel is daunting. Ever since Patti Hill talked about writing as stuffing an octopus into a mayonnaise jar, I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head. 
How does a writer go from holding an octopus in one hand and a mayonnaise jar in the other to a tidy stack of papers with his name neatly typed on the cover page?
If starting is the most crucial step (and it is), then starting well will save hours (months? Years?) of frustration in rewrites. 
Fiction is personal. No two writers come at it in the same way, and no one can say, “This is the definitive method of how to begin writing a novel.”
One writer begins with a character that shows up in her head and won’t go away. Another follows the crumbs of a plot, a series of “what if” questions. For another it’s the setting. Yet another (and this is how I usually begin) it’s theme. (update: I no longer begin a novel with theme alone. I've come to a point where I realize I must wait until a number of idea coalesce into a rich soup headed up by plot.)
Regardless of what jump-starts you to dive into writing a new novel, there are two questions you need to ask yourself before you put pen to paper. 
The first question is: Who is telling this story? 
When you discover the answer to this question, you lay the foundation for a myriad of complex literary devices. Discovering your narrator means you’ve discovered:

 Your setting. Real people live in real places—they come from somewhere. 
 When (in time and history). Narrators live in the present—even if they are dead (The Book Thief, American Beauty). 
 Which tense you will write in. Past tense (the current champion in novels everywhere), present tense? Which is best. Is anyone out there writing in future tense? 
 Voice. Ah voice, that misunderstood device of writing. Both simple and baffling. Knowing who is telling the story means you can listen deeply to that voice that lifts the words off the page and lives in the reader’s heart and mind. 
 And the biggest of them all Point of View (POV). Knowing your narrator means the POV (almost) decides itself. First person? Third person limited? Omniscient? Second person (rare, but wonderful when it’s done well)? 

Now, I’m not going to say that if you choose this kind of narrator then you automatically will have this kind of POV. It doesn’t work that way because each novel is different, and the more complex the story, the more layers of questions arise. 


If you spend a good chunk of time fiddling with the question of who, something amazing happens: you get traction under your story at the very beginning.
The second question to ask is: Why must this story be told now?

The word “now” is key to the question.  It’s not asking “is my story timely?” or, “is this culturally contextual?” Those are questions about things that lie outside your story. 
Why must this story be told now is a question that, when answered, brings a sense of intimacy, urgency, and intrigue to your novel. That tingly feeling you get when you open a novel and feel pulled in immediately. 
Why now? What desperate thing has happened that means the narrator is compelled to speak today. Now. Immediately. That not telling the story now would be wrong, perhaps tragic. 
Why is now the best time to tell the story? Knowing this will help you know where your story begins.
If you’re starting a new novel, ask yourself:
Who is telling this story?
Why does the storyteller need to tell this story NOW?

These questions will lead to more questions, which will lead to answers, which will lead to you typing THE END with a flourish.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I remember this post well. It's always been one of my favorites. So glad to have read it again today.

Man alive, I love Novel Matters.

Vanessa Reed said...

This is definitely something I needed to be thinking about given the project I've started working on! Perfect timing!

Megan Sayer said...

(Yes! Ditto to everything Susie said).

I (also) remember this post well. It resonated with me, although this time I'd be so bold as to offer my own suggestion: not to concern oneself too much with starting well (although I completely agree with what you say about the hours/months/years of revision you'll save) but just START.
My almost-complete WIP is SO much richer and stronger and deeper and more nuanced, and, amazingly, simpler, than it was when I set out to tell the story. I hit the finish line on it a while back, and then kept going (Forrest Gump style) into some kind of overdrive. It's been strange, but I'm so pleased, SO pleased, that I didn't stop at the finish line, the place where I'd completed the goals I'd set for the project.
Which brings me back to starting my next WIP. I started with characters, and the scent of an idea or three, but the flavours weren't mixing down properly, not the way I envisioned them. I realised that I was expecting this baby-novel to be written in the starting place of overdrive, the place I was at in my other novel, when I hadn't even fully marked out the boundaries of the race, or the finish line.
I read Writer's Digest cover-to-cover yesterday (I know, this is long. You're a captive audience and I'm going to talk to you anyway. Heck, it's not like many other people actually understand this stuff!) and three things stood out and melded in my brain and encouraged me so greatly. One is exactly what you said here, that fiction IS personal, and no two people will go about their process in exactly the same way. The second thing was that it CAN take years to achieve the subtlety of nuance and layers in a novel, and that time is not only okay, it's good!
I don't have to rush the process. I don't need to start in overdrive (although, God help me, one day I would love to). I just have to do my job and show up each morning.
There. Thank you for listening.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Me too.

Vanessa: *high five* on the timing.

Megan: In the end all a writer has is her gut, her intelligence, and her ability to research like a madwoman. How each book goes is individual, unique, frustrating, frightening. It takes as long as it takes.