Friday Five-O: Where to Begin?
Dear Friday Five-O,
Be honest. What’s the most important thing to figure out before you start writing a novel? Plot, characters…?
Thanks for the question.
Okay, so what all published writers know, and what we’ve been keeping from you is that you start your novel in one place, and one place only: adverbs. I know people say not to use them, but you should use them avidly, joyfully, and recklessly. I’m joking, of course. There’s no one way to begin a novel, just as there’s no one way to write a novel, or finish a novel.
The way I know when I’m ready to start working on any project is when it starts to have its own gravity. I hear you, Anu: What does that mean? It means that the ideas start to stick together, like when snow starts to cover the ground. Now you’re mixing metaphors. Yes, Anu, I am.
Sometimes it’s a character that’s been staying with you, and then, suddenly, you can hear him or her talk. Sometimes it’s a feeling coupled with a setting: unbridled joy at the flea market. Other times, it’s a series of images. In fact, that’s most often how I begin. For my novel, I had one image that I knew would
come towards the beginning, a couple of snapshots that seemed to come from the middle somewhere, and a tiny piece towards the end. Those images? A hole in the snow, a grandfather clock, a boy asleep in a barbershop chair, and a weathervane. I’m not kidding. Doesn’t it sound awesome?
Here’s a more specific example:
I wrote a short story that I edited recently, and, like anything else, the ideas all came from different areas. Just for you, Anu, I’m going to try to recall where they came from and how I hooked them together into a story.
-I wanted to write a story about spies. I had, actually, for a long time. I realized this when they broke up that Russian spy ring a year or so ago.
-As a kid, I went to Sea World in Ohio, which sounds ridiculous, and (thanks Google), it wasn’t a dream, but in fact an actual place. (It was later purchased by Six Flags, who, I hear, set all the Shamus free, where they gobbled children up like popcorn.)
-Adding those two things together (this addition took some time; I’m not sure when they actually snapped into place), I had the idea that a Soviet bloc country would potentially send someone to see what’s so special about Aurora, Ohio that it deserved such an honor.
-I liked the idea of these spies being left in Aurora by a nation that’s fallen apart.
-I found the image of them thirty, forty years later to be much more interesting than the instant aftermath of their government toppling.
So, Anu, I had a pretty good skeleton for the story, and to that I added some images: bird cages, photos hung to dry, and yellowing photographs of sweethearts back home.
I had all these pieces before I sat down to write, and the rest pretty much fell into place. At any given time, I may have two or three stories rolling around in my head, and of course, the novel, and sometimes, the next novel. Until they gain that heft, though, the feeling that they weigh so much that I have to unburden myself, I let them simmer.
The Part with Closing Remarks
You don’t always need to know exactly where you’re going (this can sometimes lead to lifeless work) but you do need to have a few things on the horizon to shoot for. This keeps you from running out of gas, which is the great danger of any long project.
More than anything, though, Anu, your idea for a novel has to be burning a hole in your brain. You have to border on obsession right from the start, or else you won’t have the power necessary to cover 300, 400, or 500 pages.
Sadly, there isn’t a secret combination to unlocking the novel. There are many tips and tricks to keep you on track and on pace and organized, but in the end, a novel’s only as good as the ideas, the work, and the passion behind it. And its adverbs.
Best of luck,
James Scott's debut novel, The Kept, will be published by Harper in 2014. He earned his MFA from Emerson College and his BA from Middlebury College. His fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Post Road, One Story, American Short Fiction, and Memorious among others, anthologized by flatmancrooked, and nominated for the Best New American Voices Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He has received awards from Yaddo, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the St. Botolph's Club, the Tin House Writers' Conference, the New York State Summer Writers' Institute, VCCA, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. James has worked for various production companies and publications, Bob Vila productions, and the Boston Red Sox. A former fiction editor of Redivider and issue editor for One Story, he currently writes for the magazine Under the Radar. Learn more at www.jamesscottwriter.com.See other articles by James Scott