Blog #2 from Caroline Graham, our Year of the Novel Blogger
There is plenty of advice around about how to start a novel. Some people will tell you to begin with a one-sentence summary. Kim Wilkins advised us to start with a commitment and a space to write in. Others suggest starting with characters or plot, brainstorming or flash fiction or an arresting premise.
But they’re wrong.
Apparently, a novel begins with panic.
It sets in the moment you open the blank word document you’ve unimaginatively called “novel” (because none of the titles you’ve come up with so far are quite good enough) and stare at the flashing cursor on that awful expanse of white digi-page. Stare. Flash. Stare. Flash. Words (mostly high-pitched self-doubty words) whirl round your head at superspeed, but none of them make it onto the page.
It doesn’t matter what font you’re using (trust me, I’ve tried them all), or what size you’re writing in. After the panic, there are only five words that come out: I’VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE.
See, I told people I was going to write a novel. I announced the beginning of this hypothetical book to my friends and family. I mentioned it casually to my co-workers at lunch. And then, as if that wasn’t crazy enough, I signed on with the QWC to take the Year of the Novel course and tell a bunch of strangers about my novel writing experience.
Sooner or later, Caroline, my inner voice (itself shrill with panic) warns me, sooner or later people are going to expect you to actually write a novel. They’re going to ask awful questions like WHAT’S IT ABOUT? and WHO ARE THE CHARACTERS? and HOW MUCH HAVE YOU WRITTEN??
Fuelled by self-doubt and the occasional bout of maniacal laughter, the panic become so paralysing that eventually there isn’t a word in the world good enough for the first line of the first page of my first novel. I stare at the screen for hours before closing the laptop and putting it away.
But later that night, something magical happens. I’m holding a pen and a telephone bill and an idea slips out onto the envelope. And then another. Before long, I’m sitting with a notebook and black ink, creating webs of ideas and characters and places. It’s wonderful. Almost easy.
Neat type on crisp white background seems so final. So ordered – the kind of medium for clear plot and fully-formed characters. But my ideas aren’t like that yet. Ink is messy. The crosses and underlines and additions are as beautiful and useful as the gems of phrases I’m starting to tuck away for later. Ink is non-linear. It’s malleable. As haphazard and delicate as my early ideas. It’s forgiving.
As ink bleeds onto paper, I remember why we write. It’s not because we told other people we would – my family will still love me if I never write another word, and my colleagues will forget my pledge as they bury themselves in their own lives and work. You, my blog-reading friends, would no doubt move on quickly.
We write because there are stories that need to be told, and because we want to remember or be remembered. Because we’re moved by the world we live, or because we want to change it. Because without writing we don’t know how to order all the sadness and beauty and magic and madness we see around us. Because we want to. And because somewhere inside, something told us we have to.