Getting Started: The Journey of a Thousand Pages Begins with a Single Word—And the Delete Key

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I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:

“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?

“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?

“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.

“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.

“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”

Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).

But I do have this one little bit of advice:

If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like.  10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.

That’s almost all the advice I have.

I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.

Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.

But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.

Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson

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Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.