Where do you dig up inspiration for a novel?


Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient.
Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient.

SO HOW DO YOU write a novel?

I work hard with many re-writes to create the first sentence of my first chapter. I’m searching for a hook. Once I’m satisfied with those words, although I may change them another dozen times, I sit back, throw the map away, and head down the road.

I don’t know where I’m going. But I’ll get there.

How do I know? I’m not driving the bus. My characters are.

As Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient said: “Some writers know what the last sentence is going to be before they begin. I don’t even know what the second sentence is going to be.”

Neither do I.

Ernest Hemingway believes you should write five pages a day. No more. No less. Then quit and let the story simmer in your mind while you wait for tomorrow when you’ll write five new pages.

James Lee Burke says he begins writing each day with two scenes in his head. That’s all he wants. That’s all he needs.

Ondaatje began his entire book with only two scenes captured in his imagination: A patient lying in bed talking to a nurse and a thief stealing a photograph of himself.

He had no idea how the two story lines would connect.

But they did.

I sit down with one scene rummaging around somewhere in the deep recesses of my head. One is all I need. That one scene will generally wind up as a complete chapter.

Others authors write long chapters packed with a lot of scenes.

I write short chapters, and by the time I finish that chapter, the scene I’ll write tomorrow has already worked its way like a thorn into my brain. I’m ready when tomorrow comes.

Some write novels by charging through the story as fast and as hard as they can go. Damn the mistakes. Damn the typos. Full speed ahead.

They will re-write and polish only after the novel is in finished manuscript form.

Others re-write as they go along, never writing the next chapter until they are reasonably pleased with what has just spilled out of their word machine..

I’m one of those. I edit and re-write the chapter I completed yesterday before moving on to the chapter I’m writing today. One leads me straight to the other. No confusion. No black holes. No writer’s block.

I recently read where one author – the very talented Maria Granovsky – believes that you should write your novel from start to finish, then set the manuscript aside, never look at it again, and write your book again from scratch. If I did so, I would have two completely different books. One wouldn’t even lay claim to the other.

Some authors write in the present tense.

I prefer the past tense.

Some write first person.

Others feel more comfortable writing in third person.

I’ve done both.

Some who write in first person are purists. I’m one of those. No scene takes place unless their first person character is on location to witness what’s going on, over hear the dialogue, or participate in the conversation. The first person character is the constant observer. He or she is the reporter who can credibly tell it all. We never leave his or her point of view.

Others who write in first person cheat. Scenes are taking place, people are talking, thoughts are running through their heads, and the first person character is nowhere around or in sight. How does he know? How can he know?

I believe readers want to read shorter novels and more novels. Get into the story. Get out of the story. And move on. As Vladimir Nabakov explained, “The writer’s job is to get the main characters up a tree and then once they are there, throw rocks at them.”

Some write the first drafts of their novels on computers while others use long hand, scribbling on note cards or notebooks. A few even use different colored pencils for each character. And more than a few clip out pictures from magazines to help them build a montage of scenes and moods.

When Joan Didion nears the completion of a manuscript, she sleeps in the same room with it.

Jack Kerouac said he had a ritual of lighting a candle and writing by its light, then blowing it out when he was done for the night.

And it was Hemingway opinion that you should always write drunk and edit sober.

So how do you write a novel? I only know one thing for certain.

You can never wait for the Muse to come and whisper inspiration in your ear. Stephen King said, “The Muse comes and sits on my shoulder every morning at five o’clock and tells me: ‘it’s time to write, you sonuvabitch.’”

And Jack London pointed out, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go get it with a club.”

Along the way, pick up a few rocks. The characters are up the tree and already ducking.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Secrets of the Dead.




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