Sunday, October 26, 2008

Starting a Novel (Part 1)

In the last few weeks I've made a push to get more people reading this blog, and in the process, received many congratulations (thank you!) from people who hinted that they, also, have entertained the possibility of starting a book or novel someday.

For those of you harboring similar aspirations --- we'll call it the "large writing project itch" --- let me encourage you by first confirming the obvious: Starting is the hardest part.

Seriously. And I'm not talking in terms of having your plot mapped out or your characters thought out or finding your voice. All that will come. And I'm not talking developing your idea sufficiently before actually starting, because in my opinion, if you have an idea that you think could take the form of a book, you have enough fodder to begin writing one.

Here, I'm talking about the only hurdle to writing your first book that really matters, which is confidence and motivation --- the simple act of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, writing the first words, paragraphs and pages of a single continuous narrative, and (this is the important part) fighting through the feelings of disgust and loathing over what you have written, the voices urging you to stop and scrap.

Before going on let me acknowledge that some people thrive on setting goals and deadlines when writing a first book --- just look at the crazies at National Novel Writing Month. Even if you don't go that extreme, setting rigid deadlines may be the best path for you. This absolutely did not work for me. When I first started writing my novel I vowed I would finish in a year. It took me two years and a lot of guilt to even start getting out of that mindset.

Try setting deadline for yourself (e.g. a novel in one year), or imposing similar structure (like 2 hours per day, or one page per day, etc), if that feels right to you. Give it a real chance, a couple months perhaps, but don't get discouraged if it doesn't work out the way you'd hoped. There's another way, the Jim way, and you can switch over any time. Or if deadlines, even self-imposed ones, scare the shit out of you, you can adopt my philosophy right away! Here it is.

A first chapter, especially of a first book, will almost certainly suck --- I base this theory on personal experience of course and I elaborate here.

In writing my first chapter, I now realize what I was really doing was laying a foundation --- in fiction, laying a foundation may mean introducing a few characters, an environment, a catalyzing event; in non-fiction you may be articulating a thesis statement, outlining points of argument, setting a context. The point is, my second chapter was superior to the first, and not because twenty pages of writing practice improved my style (style improves more gradually than that). No, it's because the first 20 pages, shitty as they were, supported what came after. I had context, I had greater focus, I could even identify some semblance of "voice" that I tried to keep consistent.

In short, I had direction --- I went from trying to swim a straight line in an ocean, to swimming down a wide river, still overwhelmed, but at least I could measure my progress a little.

Part [1] [2]


MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Ugh, I am so frustrated with just trying to find the time to get into my second novel. I have about 30,000 words of it written, but I just can't FIND THE TIME!!! I don't know how I wrote one whole book with three very small children, but I was able to do that, so what is holding me back now?!?!?!

And I hate that nanonaonoannonanananan is in November because that's just WRONG! it's Thanksgiving-people make plans during Thanksgiving. It should be during the month of January or March where there's NOTHING going on! Don't you think?

Ashley said...

I TOTALLY agree with Manic Mommy on the "what were they thinking with November?" point!

And, I just wanted to say I've been enjoying your most recent posts a seems as if you're coming into your own voice as a blogger, in addition to as a novelist : )

jim cooney said...

Yeah, that's a great point about the poor choice in months. The website claims November was chosen to "more fully take advantage of the miserable weather." But the weather in J, F, and M looks just as miserable in San Francisco, where it started, as in November, if not more so.

Manic, you should set up a competing novel-writing month. Manic March!

Amy said...

Hey Jim, this was really inpiring! I want to write a book too "someday" but someday seems so far away for this reason exactly. I have taken stabs at things in my hidden blog but everything always feels amateurish and I don't bother continuing...I am thinking of sitting down today and working on a chapter or maybe just a paragraph. :) PS - Congrats again...And, I miss Boston. :) - Amy (You remember me right? Water wizz...) PPS - Keep these blogs coming!

jim cooney said...

Aw shucks, thanks Amy. And yes, I know that amateurish feeling too well --- hell, I'm encountering all sorts of amateurish slop right now as I revise my second chapter; some of it makes my skin crawl. But in defense of my past writing self there are a few gems in there too.

Fight it! Fight with all of your being!

And thanks for these kudos, because no matter how effective my trite writing philosophies may actually be, there's no substitute for encouragement from friends and loved ones. True now as is it ever was.

J. Rosemary Moss said...

Lol Jim,

I feel obliged to put in a word for the crazies at NaNoWriMo. I think it's a great idea! Sit down and write 50,000 words in one month without bothering to edit...just get the damn words typed.

Ok--I've never actually completed NaNoWriMo. I've never made the magic '50,000' number. But it's always a month of inspiration!

There's still time...I encourage all writers to sign up =)


bostontparties said...

great advice; I'd been thinking of making a blog out of one of my stories, just so's I could get the damn thing finished! I'm curious about your title though -هل تعرف بالعربية