The Writing Book: Extract
Chapter 1 – Getting Started
It doesn't matter where you start: the only thing that matters is where you finish. As Ezra Pound said, it doesn't matter which leg of your table you make first, as long as it stands up in the end.
Once you've got something on the page, you have something to work on. Anything that prevents you getting those first words on the page has to be avoided. High expectations and thinking about the finished product rather than the task at hand can have a paralysing effect on those first words.
There's a time to think about the story as a whole. There's a time to ask yourself what your story is about, or what it means. There's a time to demand the best of yourself. But the time to do those things is not at the beginning. At the beginning, the only thing that matters is to get some words, any words, on the paper.
Why is that so hard? Sometimes it's because our minds are blank but sometimes it's because our minds aren't blank enough. Sometimes our minds are full of voices, whispering advice to us about how to write. They drown out the voice of our own mind which, at this stage, needs all the encouragement it can get.
The whispering voices of advice
The whispering voices might say things like these:
'Just begin at the beginning.'
This sounds easy. The problem is that starting at the beginning is just about the hardest place to start. The beginning of a piece of writing, as we all know, has to be irresistible. It has to grab the readers' attention and then glue them to the page. Great beginnings look easy but they don't come out of thin air; they come out of the whole story. Until the story is written, it's often hard to write a great beginning for it.
'First work out what you want to say.'
Many writers work this way. They work out their ideas, write down a plan and then just flesh it all out on the paper. However, many writers can't work this way because they don't quite know what they want to say until they've said it. Both ways of writing work, so if you can't work out what you want to say, don't let that hold you back. Once you've written something – and the exercises at the end of this chapter will take care of that – you'll have a better idea of what you want to say.
'First know your characters.'
Some writers do, but other writers get to know them as they go along. If you can't even think of any characters, let alone know them, you can still start to write.
'Writing should be grammatically correct.'
Most writing ends up being grammatically correct because it's easier for other people to read that way, but not all writing's like that. In any case, when you first put pen to paper you're the only one reading it, so feel free to do what you like. You can fix up the grammar later.
'Writing has to have an interesting style.'
Some writing does, some writing doesn't. Look at the examples from Shirley Hazzard and Gerald Murnane below. They both make you want to find out what happened next, although only the Hazzard piece has a highly 'literary' style. You might decide that your finished story should be written in an elaborate style using similes and metaphors and so on, but, unless that style comes naturally, don't worry about it for your first draft. It can all be added later.
'Writing has to have a strong story.'
How interesting is it to have someone tell you the plot of a book they've just read? Not very. This means that plot alone isn't what makes a book interesting. What makes it interesting isn't what's told but the way it's told. In some of the best stories, almost nothing happens. See the example from Olga Masters, below.
'Write about what you know.'
This is good advice because writing seems to have more energy when it comes out of something the writer has experienced. However, it's not very helpful advice if you don't feel you know anything worth writing about. Some of the exercises at the end of the chapter invite you to write about what you know, but others invite you write in another way. When you do these exercises, you might find that you know something you didn't know you knew.
'If you can't write great literature it's not worth doing.'
'Literature' is a finished product. Once it's finished, it is hard to imagine it wasn't always as perfect as it is now. The literature we study by the great writers of the past is usually not their early work. Like the rest of us, they had to practise before they got it right, and when you look at their first drafts you realise that even they didn't always know what they were doing. All that we now call 'literature' was once just writing, and all those writers we now call 'great' were once just people trying to write. If you want to learn to write well, you should read the work of those writers but it's discouraging to compare your own work with theirs too soon. One day, you too may write 'great literature' but if you try to write it from day one, you're more likely not to write at all.
'You have to be inspired.'
Few serious writers wait for inspiration to strike; they find it better to make regular work habits and stick to them, even if they're not in the mood. Some writers can work for eight or twelve hours at a stretch, others find that an our or two is all they can usefully do. Some writers have unlimited time, some have the restrictions of other jobs, households to run, children to look after. Some writers use word processors, some use typewriters, some use pens or pencils. Every writer works out a personal routine for working. Writing is one of the most individual things you'll ever do, so you'll gradually develop your own individual way of doing it. It doesn't matter how or when you write, as long as you keep doing it.
'You must write without distractions.'
If you live without distractions, this is good advice, but most of us are constantly distracted by other thoughts, worries, noises and sights. It may be impossible to eliminate distractions, but it's often possible to use them. Find a way to put the distraction, whatever it is, into your fiction, and write about it.
My only advice to writers is this: don't listen to the voices. Writers have to unlearn a lot before we are free to write. We have to unlearn a lot of the things we've learned, such as all the pieces of advice above. We have to unlearn, for a while, the desire to have a finished product. Getting a piece of writing to work usually means many failed attempts.
Hardest of all, we have to unlearn a lifetime's training in being orderly and making sense. Writers have to end up making sense but they don't have to start off making sense. In fact, a certain amount of apparent disorder is healthy in the early stages of writing. Why? Because being orderly is a process of eliminating things, and when you first start a piece of writing, it's better to have far more material than you need and more ideas than can possibly fit into the piece. You need to have a great untidy overflow of characters, events, images and moods so that you can pick and choose, rather than having a poor thin little heap.
This takes practice. At first, it may feel self-indulgent, pointless and messy. This is alarming. Remind yourself of two things: first, that this is only an early draft, not the finished product; and second, that you are the only person reading this.
And try not to ask the most paralysing question of all: 'but what is this all about?'
Here are some examples of openings to fiction that reach out and grab you and don't let you put the book down.
When we were thirteen, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn't let you do. Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs, and go to the beach.
– From Puberty Blues, Kathy Lette, p. 1
Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.
– From Bliss, Peter Carey, p. 7
Notice something about them, though. As well as being openings, they are also summaries, which means they might have been written last, not first. The next two examples aren't so much summaries as statements of the theme: moods and images that set the context for the rest of the book.
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation. It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England. As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War - unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.
That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve - for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments - waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.
– From Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard, p. 3
It was the afternoon of the thunderstorm when A. finally decided to fall in love with Nola Pomeroy or try to shag her or do something special with her in some out-of-the-way place.
The clouds began piling up late in the morning. Storms in summer usually came from the south west, where the ocean lay. But this one appeared from an unlikely quarter. A. watched it almost from its beginnings through the north windows of the school. Its black bulk was bearing down on Sedgewick North from the plains far inland.
After lunch the sky over the school showed nothing but bulging clouds that tore away continually and drifted like smoke on turbulent currents. A. had just seen the first of the lightning when Mr Farrant told the seventh grade that their film strip on Major Mitchell was ready in the cloakroom and asked them what they were waiting for. They filed out through the door. Mr Farrant called after them: 'You, A., turn the projector and read the text and send the wrigglers and gigglers back to me.'
The cloakroom was so dark that A. could not see who had gone into the lovers' corner. But the darkness made the pictures more sharp and clear than any he had seen before. He showed the map of south-eastern Australia with a wide blankness over nearly all of Victoria. He went on turning the knob. Mitchell's dotted line left the Murray River and thrust southwards. A.'s audience was unusually quiet and solemn. He supposed they were waiting for the first heavy drops of rain on the iron roof.
– From 'The Only Adam', Gerald Murnane, in Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories, p. 259
Each of these examples starts with an attention-grabbing sentence, then moves away to focus on the weather before homing in on an individual character. In this way, a link can be established right in the beginning between large impersonal movements – represented by the weather – and individual lives. Notice how we're told some basic facts about where and when the story is set, but this rather dull though necessary information is embedded in much more dramatic material.
'It's today,' the fat child said and rolled over in bed landed on her feet on the floor and held the window sill, looking back at her sister, the thin one who had been jerked awake. 'Today!' the fat one said. The thin one half raised herself on her elbows in bed. Her straight hair fell over her face. The fat one had curly hair in corkscrews over her head.
'Should be the other way round,' a visitor said once, looking at them with a stretched mouth and blank eyes.
The visitor meant that straight hair would have taken away from the fat one's rounded look and curls might have made the thin one look rounder. The foster mother looked at them not bothering to stretch her mouth. The fat one and the thin one looked away not knowing how to apologize for being the way they were.
'Go and play,' the foster mother said, but they were already going. The fat one picked up a brush now and pressed it down her curls which sprang back in the wake of the bristles. When she put the brush down she saw in the mirror her hair was the same as before. The thin one screwed her body so that she could see the fat one's reflection. 'Are you?' she said.
'Am I what?' the fat one answered.
'You know.' The thin one moved a foot which need not have belonged to her body so flat were the bed-clothes.
'Excited about it,' the thin one said.
'Yes!' said the fat one, too loud and too sudden.
Tears came into the thin one's eyes. 'Don't shout!' she said.
The fat one picked up the brush and began to drag at her curls again. The thin one's watery eyes met her sister's in the mirror. They looked like portraits on a mantlepiece, the subjects photographed while the tension was still in their expression.
The foster mother came into the room then. She made the third portrait on the mantlepiece.
The thin one started to get out of bed rather quickly. Her ears were ready for the orders so she began to pull blankets off for the bedmaking.
But the foster mother said, 'Leave that.'
The thin one didn't know what to do then. She thrust a finger up her nose and screwed it round.
The foster mother covered her face with both hands. After a while she took them away showing a stretched mouth.
'Now!' she said quite brightly looking between them.
Now what? thought the fat one and the thin one.
Their mouths hung a little open.
The foster mother squeezed her eyes shut.
– From 'The Home Girls', Olga Masters, in The Home Girls, pp. 1-2
In the above story by Olga Masters, it's fairly obvious from the start that nothing earth-shattering is going to take place. But the way the humble domestic details are set in a context of irony makes you want to read on.
This is the legend of Wendy Trull who was the prettiest girl in Tasmania between 1955 and, say, 1959. A long time to hold any title, particularly that of beauty queen.
When you see a beginning like that, you know that Wendy must either triumph over terrible odds and end up as the wife of a diplomat, or she must be doomed. Will Wendy be found at the bottom of the cliff, broken like a wax doll, with strange juices oozing out, and her ears in a paper bag, you wonder; or will she have a wedding in the Cathedral, and an ironing lady, and a second house at the beach, perhaps even a third in the mountains and a flat in London? And for the children a nanny who is more like a second mother to them than a servant. What is going to happen to Wendy?
Wendy lived with her mother and father and brother and sisters in a reasonably nice house with wide verandahs on Windmill Hill. The needles from the pine trees collected on the verandahs, and one of Wendy's jobs was to sweep them up and put them in the incinerator. Wendy's granny lived in a grim old terrace house in a poorer part of the town. She kept the brass doorknob on the front door gleaming, and in the passage, just inside the door, she kept a cow. You opened the door, and there, standing sadly on the pink and green lino, was a brown and white cow. Cows' eyes look very big indeed when you see them up close in the narrow dimness of an entrance hall.
If there are motifs and links in the lives of people, then the presence of the cow in her granny's passage can be related to the presence of a secret lover in Wendy's attic. There were many years between the cow and the lover, but Buttercup, certainly an unusual pet, is somehow linked in Wendy's life to the man in the attic.
– From Buttercup and Wendy, Carmel Bird, pp. 49-50
In the example above, there's a beginning that teases us with the kind of attention-grabbing first sentence that traditional fiction uses, but before we can relax into the reading trance, it is broken. This beginning promises that it's going to joke us along on two levels of meaning: one where we want to find out what happens to the characters and another where we're looking at the mechanism of the story-telling process itself. The everyday and the fantastic are put in the same frame so that there's leakage from one to the other: the beauty queen becomes strange and the cow in the hall becomes normal through this kind of two-layered vision.
It is not entirely an impersonal study of the process, though. Have a look at the way 'you' is used and imagine how much less intimate and engaging the piece would feel without it.
Here are three groups of exercises here, representing different techniques for getting started. Do some from each group because the aim at this point is to free your imagination and let it explore unknown paths. Think of these as nothing more than warm-up exercises and don't judge them as pieces of writing. The more you're surprised by what you find yourself writing, the better these exercises are working.
Group 1 - Improvisations
Many writers use some kind of improvisation as a way to start. Improvisations are a way of tapping into the unconscious mind rather than the controlled conscious level. Improvisations can help you remember forgotten moments of the past and let you think thoughts that might have been censored or ridiculed into silence. Improvisations are likely to be your own ideas and your own natural language rather than second-hand thoughts and language borrowed from other books or TV.
In the course of writing an improvisation, you're likely to write about what you're really interested in and what you're really thinking about. This will help to answer the question: 'What should I write about?'
To get in the mood, start with a completely unstructured improvisation:
Write for 60 seconds without stopping. Just write exactly what comes into your head, even if it's only 'I can't think of anything to write this is a stupid thing to do.' Don't write in proper sentences or proper punctuation unless it comes out that way.
If you think you can't do this because there's not a single thought in your head, sit for 60 seconds with a completely blank mind. Not a single thought, not even about how hard the chair is or how much you'd like lunch. Is it possible?
Here's another kind of improvisation, one that gives you a starting point:
Self-Portrait: write about yourself as you are at this moment, using all five senses. What are you seeing? How does it look, how much of it can you see, what colours are there, what kind and quality of light is there? What are you hearing? Is it a constant noise, what causes it, what else might cause it? Is there another noise behind it that you only hear if you listen especially for it? Are any of these sounds like other sounds, do they remind you of anything else, do they make you feel a certain way? What are you touching, is it smooth, hard, cold? What else does it feel like? Do different parts of your body feel different things? Are you comfortable? What would make you more or less comfortable? How are you sitting or standing? What mood does this posture indicate? What are you smelling? Are you tasting anything? Can you imagine a taste? What would you like to be tasting? Can you describe that taste? If something distracts you from writing, write about this distraction.
Those improvisations were about the here-and-now but you can also improvise about the past. Which bit of the past? See what you start writing about when you do the following exercise:
Write the words 'I remember' at the top of a piece of paper and then see what comes out.
Write the words 'Yesterday, I' at the top of a piece of paper and see what you find yourself writing next.
Improvisations don't have to use your own experiences as a starting point. Words and objects can get you started just as well.
Write one of the following words and phrases at the top of a page and then write for 60 seconds. Write whatever comes into your head about the word: something it reminds you of, someone you think of when you hear the word, an emotion it makes you feel. Mushrooms. Gorgeous. Telephone. Shout. Fur. Never. You wouldn't have thought ... She wasn't a ... lying face down ...
Or take an object – either one you can see or one in your mind – and do the same thing. The object might be a stone, a leaf, a car, a photo, a painting, a garbage bin or anything else.
Improvisation is all about hearing the voice of the unconscious, which we don't normally hear. One place we do hear it, though, is in our dreams which, for that reason, are often good starting points for writing.
Write about a dream you had recently, even if you can only remember scraps of it. Now look at the scraps: do any of them make you think of something else? Is there anything in waking life that they make you think of? What is the mood of the dream? Use the scraps as the starting point for an improvisation.
Some people write down their dreams regularly, often as part of a journal. This is a good idea for writers: a journal can be a grab-bag of anything at all that you notice or think. You can note down dreams and events from life and also jokes you've heard, slips of the tongue, misprints, signs and ads that you've noticed, things that you found interesting or puzzling in books or films, descriptions of people or animals or places, emotions you've felt and their causes, ideas you've had. Your journal is just for you, so you can write it in any way you like and anything at all can go into it. You don't have to write in it every day, though the more you start doing it, the more intriguing things you'll start noticing. Once you have a journal, you can use a phrase or an idea from it as the basis for an improvisation, and later on you can ransack it for settings, characters and so on.
There's a point where improvisation is almost exactly the same as the process of writing fiction. Here's an exercise where they come very close:
Without trying to think of a story, describe a character: male or female, their age, race, occupation, physical appearance and mood at this moment. Where is this character: city, country; inside, outside; rich, poor surroundings; cold, hot environment; alone or with others?
Now describe the same things about another character. The second character needn't have anything to do with the first. Then, connect these two characters. Do they already know each other? If they don't, is there a way in which they meet each other? If they already know each other, are they related by love, hate, accident or physical proximity? Is there a significant object which is important to the characters? Does one of the five senses predominate? What is the overall mood: menacing, domestic, meditative, etc?
Write a page in which these two characters interact.
If you're finding it hard to think of characters, start by improvising a setting and then add the characters later, like this:
Describe a place, a room or a landscape or some other kind of environment. What's the time of day, the weather, are we in the city or the country, are we inside or outside, is it hot or cold, is it a pleasant place or not, what can be heard, seen or smelled? Now some person enters this scene: furtively, violently, casually, accidentally?
Group 2 - Using someone else's story
This is a kind of improvisation, too, but you're improvising on a tune someone else has already written. That means you don't have to worry about structure: that's already there. You don't have to worry about plot: that's already there. You can concentrate on bringing your own voice to the story and focusing on what it is that you find interesting about it.
You might worry that if you're using other people's work or copying them, you'll never be able to write in your own way. Don't worry about that yet: if you're still copying another writer in your tenth draft, then worry. Try, though, to borrow from various writers, with different styles and voices, so that you don't get locked into one way of doing it.
Re-tell a story from somewhere: a newspaper story, a myth, a fairy-story, a joke, a story your mother told you.
Ask yourself, why have I chosen this particular story to use rather than another? Is it to do with the events? Or is it the people in it? Is it something I don't understand about the story that makes me want to re-tell it? Is it similar to something I've experienced myself? If it's sad, what exactly makes it sad? If it's funny, what exactly makes it funny? If it's sad, what would you have to do to it to make it funny? If it's funny, what would you have to do to make it tragic?
The answers to these questions might suggest another way of telling the story that is further from the original: more your own invention and less the story you've borrowed. Re-tell it again, making use of the answers to the above questions.
Sometimes it's not the plot of someone else's story that draws you to that piece of writing, but the actual words the writer's used or a mood that the original has created. It's often hard to say just how it has been done but you might be able to borrow a voice you like by doing this:
Choose a piece of writing you like. Use the first sentence as the opening for a piece you write yourself; or take the fast sentence of the piece of writing and use it to conclude your piece. Another way is to look through the piece of writing until you come to a phrase or sentence that particularly takes your attention. Improvise a page of writing, using this phrase or sentence in any way you like.
There is some magic about the rhythm of sentences, the way the words are put together, that can make a piece of writing very powerful and musical. There's no reason why you shouldn't borrow some of that magic.
Take a couple of sentences that you like from another story. Now, leaving the structure of each sentence exactly the same, replace the words with words of your own.
Here's an exercise for those who relish chaos:
Take a few pages of some writing that you like. Cut the pages up into phrases or words, put all the bits into a box and then pull them out and stick them together at random. You'll have a lot of nonsense and you'll also have a few suggestive, odd connections: ways of putting words together that you'd never have thought of otherwise. Take some of these connections and use them as the basis for an improvisation.
This next exercise doesn't just borrow from someone else's story but from someone else's life.
Eavesdrop on a conversation: on a bus, at a party, in the street, or even one end of a phone conversation. Write down what you can remember of it, then use it as the basis for a page of writing. Ask these sorts of questions to get going: what are these characters like? What sort of life histories do they have? Do they like each other, fear each other, despise each other, are they about to fall in love? What are they doing while they talk? Where are they? What are they about to do next?
Group 3 - Word games
These exercises are at the other end of the spectrum from the first ones which were improvisations based on yourself. These ones take as their starting point something quite impersonal: games with words.
No one expects great literature or anything very profound to come out of word games so they're a good way of writing in an unselfconscious way. Word games are an excellent way of jerking the mind out of its usual groove. In these exercises, the rules of the game force you to put words together and create meanings in ways you may never think of otherwise. Sometimes there's no meaning and that's useful, too, because it's a reminder that words are just artificial games themselves which only mean something because we've all agreed that they should.
Some of these might sound silly. But try them: you might be surprised at what you find yourself writing.
- Write a paragraph without using the letter 'e'.
- Write a paragraph in which the first word starts with 'a', the second word starts with 'b' and so on through the alphabet.
- Go through the dictionary and collect ten words that catch your eye. Write a piece that will use them all.
- Take a sentence at least ten words long, from anywhere. Then use each word in the sentence as the first word of a new sentence.