By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail
I’ve been dabbling in this writing lark for a while. And I do mean dabbling: short stories, bits of ideas, notebooks (piles of them) and a Documents folder on my computer that looks like the detritus of a bookshop caught in the London Riots. And honestly? I’ve never actually made it further than a short story.
I’m probably not that unusual among writers just starting out. A short story is an obvious thing on which to cut your teeth. You get a feel for your own writing, learn about tension and pace, and building characters, shaping plots, and all within a time-frame that seems reasonable. You’re not signing away years of your life in the process. Almost from the very start, you can see the end of the endeavor looming before you. Minimal emotional investment, maximum output. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about learning how to write. Obviously writing a perfect short story is about as easy as fashioning a Fabergé Egg.)
But what happens when your ideas and ambition seem to outgrow the form? Short stories may seem doable but novels, on the other hand, are like some long, slow slog with the devil. A long, marathon across a huge expanse of wasteland, the end so far away it seems unattainable. It seems like writing with Sisyphus on one shoulder, and Tantalus on the other (or so I imagine at least.) And where, if some sudden madness compelled me, would I start anyway?
It turns out, not really at the beginning.
There were ten of us on the course, all from different parts of the country, with very different ideas for our prospective novels. Prior to the class Keith had asked us to bring a book with us, a book that had engaged us and that we loved, and the type of book we would wish to write ourselves. The range that appeared was as wide as the possibilities, everything from literary fiction to children’s books and plenty of genres in between.
But back to this thing with beginning…It seems like the most obvious thing in the world (and I am blushing slightly with embarrassment that I had never thought about it before) but books are not written the way they are read. If there was one thing Keith tried to hammer into us over the weekend it was this: very few novels start out life in the same place the readers will eventually encounter them.
We looked at a number of examples. Very different novels, but all with beginnings that seemed almost arbitrary out of context. Starting points that the author had probably chosen long after they had begun writing. If you’re a bit like me and you obsess over the tiniest of details, of getting each sentence right before moving onto the next, this can actually feel quite revelatory to hear.
I don’t have to have every single scene plotted out. I don’t even have to know exactly how it’ll begin. Keith’s advice was simply to figure out the general shape of your novel, you might not even have a specific plot or even characters, but find the shape and let the rest take care of itself as you write.
There were plenty of other things to be gleaned from the course too. We looked at ways of generating ideas, of using other people’s writing to spark ideas of our own and spoke about the importance of feeling emotionally involved in what you’re writing, despite how teeth-chatteringly terrifying it is. We got to hammer Keith with as many questions as we could think of, and he answered them all with thoughtfulness and honesty.
But maybe my favourite piece of advice from the weekend was what Keith called ‘Writing as Performance.’ Never mind “Know Thyself,” try “Fool Thyself.” Do whatever it takes to write, even if it means convincing yourself that you’re not.
If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.
Slavoj Žižek claims to loathe writing so much that he actually pretends to never do it. He writes down ‘ideas’ and then he ‘edits’ them, until eventually it begins to look like a coherent piece of writing. Keith echoed this idea. If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.
I wouldn’t claim that I walked away from the weekend with an idea that writing a novel will be easy. It’s not. It couldn’t be, or else all our inner books would’ve been let out by now. But I still want to do it, even more than before, and at least now I have some practical ideas for how to get through the most trying bits.
Also, I think I’m going to print out the contents of that Documents folder. I’ll scatter the rubble across the floor of my house, my metaphorical graveyard littered with the bodies of false-starts, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and look at the size of it and feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. I might even find an idea there, hidden and nearly lost. You have to start somewhere, anywhere.