by Sean Chercover
There’s a video (embedded below) of Joyce Carol Oates talking about writing. She says that she always starts with characters, and setting (which she also considers a character).
She says some stuff about the various personalities of dogs and cats and horses that I found a bit odd, as much as I love animals (Hi Edgar! – if you’re reading this, which, since you’re a dog, I guess you’re not).
She talks about writing her way into a novel by listening to the way the characters express themselves as she writes, and the desire that new writers feel to give up at this early stage.
She says, “I know, the first six weeks of writing a novel for me are like hell. I’m very unhappy and very frustrated, and actually very miserable. But I keep on going. ”
I don’t delight in her misery, but it is reassuring to know that this happens to everyone. Even Joyce Carol Oates, who probably wrote three short stories in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Facing the blank page is always challenging, but at the beginning of a story, the page is really blank. To help get past this, some people write detailed character biographies, others do free-writing exercises where they interview their characters, or where the characters interact with each other in scenes that probably won’t end up in the novel. And each of those techniques is great, if it works for you.
But there’s a fine line between “developing your characters” and procrastination, just as there is a fine line between “researching” and procrastination, or “plotting” and procrastination.
Eventually, you have to face the blank page. Eventually, your fingers have to push down on the little buttons with the letters on them, making words, and putting those words in order to make the sentences that comprise your novel.
Most writers*, no matter how prolific, will tell you that the beginning is hell. But you keep on going. And then you hit a point – page 20 or 30 or 50 – where you’ve got a handle on your characters, you understand their goals and problems, and you can see where they are headed and the obstacles in their path.
At that point, you love your story and you love your writing and the world is beautiful and you are a genius.
You know it won’t last, and it doesn’t. You cruise along for a while, then doubts arise and the voices in your head get louder, and by the time you hit the halfway point in your manuscript, something breaks in your head and you become convinced that you’ve written the worse POS in the history of writing, and that there is no way to fix it.
And, somehow, you get past that little bump in the road.
But today I’m focusing on the first bump, at the beginning. I recently got an email from an aspiring novelist who wanted to know about finding an agent. I asked him if he’d finished his book, and he answered at length about all the research he’d done. I asked again if the novel was finished.
He hadn’t even started.
You must start. Like Ms. Oates, you will be “very unhappy and very frustrated and actually very miserable.” But if you want to write a novel, you must start. And you must keep going.
As Bugs Bunny said, “Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”
*changed from "every writer" - see comments.