On 12/23/09, Asma posted this comment: I was actually referring to the process of beginning to write, after an idea has formed in your mind. I have attempted your advice to start in the middle, but usually I don’t know where to go from there or where I’ve come from. If I try to begin at the beginning, I usually don’t know where to start, get bored, or become obsessed with perfection. I usually don’t have this problem with short stories (my reference to length) as the entire plot is so short as to have fully materialized in my mind, and all I have to do is write it down. Longer pieces are my real difficulty.
This is excellent timing, because I’m poised to start on a new book. For me, writing a beginning is the end of the phase that I hate most, which is shaping in my mind and in notes enough of a story to get going with. A non-writer friend was surprised that this stage wasn’t fun, more fun than anything else – fooling around, trying one plot notion after another, being creative. Instead, I feel like I’m in a big empty house with no windows, and I whirl from room to room, facing only blank walls.
Eventually, an idea glows out of a white wall, and I write it down. With maddening slowness, more ideas emerge. I’ve called them forth, of course, but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve done anything. It feels more like all the ideas in the world are off at a party, and occasionally one of them hears my plaintive voice from a hundred miles away, and it condescends to visit me.
Here’s how I’m getting started, in generalities: I want to write another mystery with some of the same characters from the last one, and I want to associate it with a fairy tale. So I reread a bunch of fairy tales and wrote notes about what I might do with some of them. With each I reached a point of stuckness and couldn’t go any further in my imagination.
Finally I found a tale that fits the setting I have in mind and decided to write a mystery sequel. By now I’ve written eight pages of notes, and I still don’t know who the villain will be and how the story will work itself out. It’s not bad not to know who’s evil in a mystery, because I won’t telegraph the answer to the reader. Still, I like to have a dim idea of an ending to aim toward.
Then I thought of a larger problem that I can wrap the tale in, and I know, more or less, how the larger problem should end, so I’m ready to begin, even though most of the story is a muddle.
I lost my way writing both Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and I wandered in notes and wrong directions for months or more before I found the story. This was very painful. I don’t want it to happen again, but it may, and it may on this next book, and if it does I will be miserable, probably for a long time. So far in my writing career I haven’t gone astray enough to abandon a book before finishing it, but even that could happen.
This kind of misery is the lot of many writers. We try beginning after beginning. We start in the middle and then slowly figure out what went before. We get bored (I do). We get trapped trying to make a little piece perfect. Then we slog on.
The most important quality for a writer to cultivate is patience. A long piece of fiction is the work of months at the very least. Sometimes a ten-page scene will take a ridiculous time to straighten itself out. We put up with this because we belong to the insane writing branch of humanity.
The second most important quality is kindness to self. Poor me (for example), suppose I need to write at least a page today, but nothing is happening. Maybe I’ll feel better if I stare out the window or take a shower. Poor me, I am so dumb that I made a mistake in Chapter Three that makes Chapters Four, Five, and Six impossible. But I forgive myself, because otherwise I will have to leap out of my skin.
The third quality is doggedness. I am going to finish this expletive-deleted story no matter what.
Specifically about story shape – I like compact ideas as the basis for long novels. Simple plots don’t have to turn into short stories; they can become big books. Robin McKinley wrote the novel Beauty and Donna Jo Napoli wrote the novel Beast, both based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” which is only fifteen pages long in the version I own.
I love to work with an uncomplicated tale, because then I can embroider and heap on details and twists. My The Princess Test comes from “The Princess and the Pea,” which is one of the shortest of fairy tales. I thought, Well, who could possibly feel a pea under all those mattresses? And what was she doing, soaking wet at the castle door? Why did the king and queen invent a pea-mattress test as proof of princess-ness? How many other crazy tests can I add? Answering these questions produced many pages of story.
So here’s a prompt. Take a rudimentary story, like Rumpelstiltskin, or a nursery rhyme like this one:
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
and write about it. If these don’t interest you, pick your own. I’m not saying you should write a novel, although it would be cool if you did. Just write about how you might add depth to the stories and complicate them. Take Miss Muffet for example. The spider sits next to her. Is it the same size she is? Is the rhyme about an invasion of giant spiders? Aaa!
Have fun and save what you write!