Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The First Six Weeks Are Like Hell

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!”
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*changed from "every writer" - see comments.

20 comments:

Lee Child said...

Always happy to disagree with Ms. Oates, slightly less happy to disagree with you, Sean, but I'm never better than when starting out ... think about it: the first sentence is the only one in the whole book that doesn't have to follow another sentence; finally you're free of all the holes and dead-ends you wrote yourself into last time; and ... this time ... maybe ... it will come out good. I love the first six weeks. Best six weeks of the year.

abbourgoin said...

Sean, thank you so much for posting this on of all days, today! I recently hit the second bump-where doubt sets in and you're ready to throw in the towel. Over the weekend, I was reading just how difficult it is to actually finish a novel, to get published, etc.

However, I stumbled on your post this morning. I also got an offer from an online magazine to publish an article I wrote. (My first offer ever.) Between the offer and your post, I have never felt so inspired and uplifted.

Thank you!

And Lee, sorry to say I have to disagree. For me, so far, maybe not the first sentence, but the first chapter was hardest. I had about five different ways I could start and I couldn't decide. I had actually drafted five first chapters and let a close friend choose with me.

I guess this just proves how different we all are.

Dana King said...

I have bits of both Lee's and Sean's outlook. The beginning is fun, for the reasons Lee cites. I move into the POS phase about 1/3 of the way in. (And apparently stay there, based on the ever-growing pile of rejections.)

A piece of advice to the aspiring novelist who contacted Sean: I have figured out THE secret of finding an agent and getting oublished. Writers can vary about style, plots, characters. dialog, anything else, but all the great ones, from Dickens to Tolstoy to Steinbeck to Chanlder, have one thing in common: they finished.

Sean Chercover said...

Abbourgoin - Congratulations on the article! That's great news.

Lee - Well, as my Grandpa used to say, that's what makes horse races. You are the first writer I've ever heard say that the blank page is the fun bit. But then again, you're also one of those who can write a novel with no idea what happens next. I am insanely jealous of your mojo. Whatever you're drinking, can I have some?

Sean Chercover said...

Nicely said, Dana. And I'll mark you down as the second writer I've ever heard say the blank page is fun!

Libby Hellmann said...

My trick is not to even approach the blank page till I have the first sentence... maybe even the first graf... mentally composed. But yes, I'm at the half way POS point right now. Sigh.

David J. Montgomery said...

Starting a novel isn't too bad.

FINISHING a novel is a bitch.

Guyot said...

Obviously, I know nothing of writing novels, but that won't stop me from spewing my worthless opinion, will it?

I think what Sean is talking about is absolutely true for the vast majority of working writers. Writers already published, selling screenplays, etc.

For aspiring writers, starting is the best, most fun thing there is. It's so free and easy and fun.

Finishing (as that dopey Daily Beast guy points out) is a huge, insanely difficult task. And very few ever do it.

But for the writer Sean is, and those he's talking to, I assume, finishing is the fun part. You've made it over the hump, you've gained that euphoric momentum, and the words are flying off your fingers at this point.

We all have to give give Lee Child's take on things a pass... he's not of this world. If I could do it as easily, and half as good as Lee, I'd be living in a much nicer home.

David J. Montgomery said...

One of the biggest mistakes I think a writer can make is to try to emulate Lee Child. What he can do is a special kind of magic that the rest of us can't touch.

I think he made a little trip to the Crossroads, if you get my drift.

jnantz said...

Sean, to be honest, I have nothing to add here except that my "POS/doubts" second bump is still haunting me through rewrites, and that you have a cool ass pup. Edgar, huh? Good name.

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks, jnantz. Edgar is a very cool mutt, and we love him.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Don't we get to see a picture of Edgar?

Sean Chercover said...

Click on his name in the blog post, Barb. You'll see him.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Awwwww. He's excellent.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Yeah I actually love the beginning. I love it so much I usually end up writing four or five beginnings before I decide.

I feel the despair in the middle. And also at the end. Everything you haven't yet written is awesome. Everything you've actually written is crap. Sigh.

I need a little Rescue Me to make me feel better now.

Picks By Pat said...

I like beginning a novel. The middle of the novel is where my trouble starts. Even if I know how it will end, that middle section is a minefield!

Bryon said...

Oh I love starting a novel. Like Lee says, you can do anything. I love getting my characters into interesting situations and throwing obstacles in their way and generally making a mess of their lives. It's the last six weeks that kill me. I absolutely suck at wrapping it all together. I've resorted to things as varied as faked deaths and once, even, a secret tube that shot a character out of a fight I couldn't end.

Laura Caldwell said...

This is so bizarre. I thought everyone felt like me (and Lee). The beginning is a joy! Such optimism. Such potential. The end--when you turn a corner and see the finish line like shimmering city lights a few miles away--is lovely too. The middle, which for me starts about Chapter 4 and goes all the way through to that corner turn, is filled with doubt, self-loathing and fear. (Note to self: make therapy appointment).

Lori said...

"Even Joyce Carol Oates, who probably wrote three short stories in the time it took me to write this sentence."

Just hilarious. And probably true.

Lori said...
This comment has been removed by the author.