Starting Fresh

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How do you write a novel?

People ask me this question all the time. I’ve never known the answer, despite having completed six of them (and a memoir, but that’s another story). And yet every book must have its beginning; an intrigue, a question that invites answer, as Lee Child so aptly put it in a NYTimes article I rather loved.

Sometimes, the intrigue has begun with a sentence that arrives from the ether, intact and unexpected.

“The cabin boy had fallen overboard again.”

That was the first line of the first novel I ever wrote, begun when I was sixteen years old. What cabin boy? Why was he so clumsy? Who would save him?

As it turned out, Lynnette Blackthorne, captain of The Maiden’s Revenge, would fish him out of the drink, but I didn’t know that then. I only knew… Kerplunk! Sploosh! He’d fallen in. And I followed him into the deep for a hundred thousand words or so.

Other times it’s not a specific sentence that gets me going. I just think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” or “Hey, that could be a great setting/premise for a novel.” Or even, as with BLISS, “Hm, I really want to write a new novel. So what are some of my favorite things? I know! Cupcakes! And climaxes!” And then I start grinding away.

I’ve got a new idea brewing today. But it’s still just a blastocyst, and could branch out in so many different directions. How do I direct and coax it to be the best little book it can possibly be?

I ask myself questions. I pepper friends, relatives, and strangers off the street with “what-if..?” and “do you think…?” until they back away from me, eyeing the exits. And I try to stitch together the best of these snippets until something entertaining emerges.

It’s an exciting process. But it’s also like, “HTF do *I* know what happens in this story?” Who am *I* to say?

Today I’m sitting in a cafe (incidentally, freezing my ass off because apparently they’ve got the most powerful A/C unit in NYC), and saying to my screen, “Why is Miss X (I don’t even know her name yet) in this jam? What makes her jam fun/sympathetic? Can this jam sustain 350 pages or so?

Hell if I know. But it’s time to start figuring it out.

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