When I finished my Masters in Creative Writing, three agents wanted to meet and talk about my novel. I remember thinking: I’ve made it!
Despite being tongue-tied in one interview, turning up a week early for another, and being paranoid about the third because her office was so impressive – all of them offered to represent me. What happened then was a fretful few days where I tried to allow for this all to sink in and make a decision.
They’d each given me different feedback on my novel, so I was not only assessing each agent as a person – how I thought our relationship would develop – but also the future of my writing, my ability to do what was being asked. I had no idea about anything.
This whole process has a resemblance to the actual writing of the novel – in that I started off with no expectation, but a strong belief it would work, and then at some point I was staring at an overwhelming amount of information with no idea what to do next.
I was lucky in that three talented individuals were prepared to take me on, but I made the mistake in believing the hard work was over, when it had only just begun.
I had a discussion with one of the agents about where my novel should start. The narrative followed two characters, starting at the events that change the course of their lives, continuing on to the moment their lives cross – for an instant – and then driving on to the moment where they will, hopefully, cross once more.
The agent thought the novel should open at the moment of the characters’ first meeting. Or, more specifically, he wanted me to make up an entirely new moment of meeting and start the novel there. In technical terms in media res or, in the middle of the action.
Your start is a slow boil, he told me: it’s asking a lot of the reader to want to follow these two seemingly unrelated people as they embark on new journeys in their lives.
I didn’t sign with him because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do what he’d asked. He had such impressive authors on his books, I felt sure that once he saw I was incapable, he’d lose interest and I’d be relegated to leaving messages for him with his assistant.
I’ve been thinking about all this recently: firstly, where your story should start; secondly, whether this should be determined by the author, or the reader; and thirdly, the experience of starting again with a book!
I spent two years running a literary event in London. Once a month, a team of writers and I chose new talent to read beside an established author. We received dozens of submissions and I found the reading a chore, but can’t deny the learning experience. Too often I’d turn the pages, thinking: this story hasn’t started yet and I’m nearly halfway through! Your reader won’t be interested in the back story, if they don’t know why this history is so important, which can only be revealed by the moment in the present where the past has caught up. This is to do with a skill in structuring, which Alice Munro’s short stories have in abundance. Read any of those in The Progress of Love and you’ll see how effortlessly she starts in the middle of something and manages to continue with that forward impetus, while feeding in the past. Raymond Carver is another master at this. His stories are very different to Munro’s: hers are like miniature novels, their worlds are so complete, but Carver’s are a sketch – powerful for the juxtaposition of acute observation and minimalism.
Carver hated tricks.
‘At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, I tend to look for cover’, he said.
This is most relevant to me in a story’s opening. I can get a sense of when a writer is manipulating an image to ‘lure’ the reader in. I’ve written ‘lure’ like that because often I find that a writer thinks they’re being very clever with this or that device, but what they’re really doing is assuming their reader is dumb. This is where my first two points of discussion converge – deciding where the story starts and how much this should be to do with the reader.
Putting some kind of stunt into a beginning is treating the reader as an idiot: an opening line of description that has the sole purpose of impressing; or a clear indication that something truly, terribly, hideously awful has happened, and don’t you really want to know what it is? Well, if you do you’ll have to keep reading until the very end, thank you very much.
Carver is clear when he says: ‘Any strategy that keeps important and necessary information away from the reader in the hope of overcoming him by surprise at the end of the story is cheating.’
So, how do we go about starting a story and drawing a reader in by good, honest skill alone?
Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
If I read a novel that starts with the intention of creating suspense, a part of my curiosity is aroused, but there’s another part of my brain that says (sighing): yes, I see what’s being done here. I’m not enthralled, but merely sidetracked, and I will flick the pages as a matter of course – a means to an end – rather than handling each one with gratitude, turning them as if in a dream, with no means of stopping.
‘Beauty is not a means,’ William Maxwell said. ‘It is not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect.’
Just as it doesn’t work to write a beautiful opening sentence to ‘show’ the reader that we’re superb writers, we cannot open with an intention of creating suspense. What we can do is work out our story, discover it – the parts that are background, the parts that are the important, active present. Once we have the whole picture, we can then choose a moment in that picture and present it to the reader. If we have gone about this with sincerity, we end up with a moment that is rich with history and full of potential. It’s one piece among many: a result, rather than a means.
This is why we don’t have to be afraid of starting again.
Back when I was meeting those agents, I was nervous about reworking my novel because I still hadn’t stopped to think about what it had taught me. Analysis travels back through the story, but I was still the writer – working in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to have to retrace my steps back into my work, along a path that tapered to a microscopic point – that ‘invisible’ influence on which the novel was based. I was mesmerised by the space that I saw opening in front of me. Three agents wanted to represent me – I was now thinking about publishers.
And then I heard from those publishers:
‘I found the descriptions rich and evocative, but I prefer a narrative with more focus and direction. Sorry not to love this one, but I hope there will be more!’ I got from Quercus.
‘It’s a charming story, and I can see it making a lovely film, but I fear we would struggle to make a splash with it in the market, and therefore I’m going to have to pass. I would love to see whatever Gabriela does next, however.’ (Bloomsbury)
I do agree with you that Gabriela has talent though, even if I did find THE SILVER BUMBLEBEE to be a little overwritten at times; and therefore if you don’t sell her this time around, I’d be very interested to see what she comes up with next.’ (Little Brown)
It goes on.
It was time to start again. Throwing away material, recasting characters – these things can come without a sense of failure. We grow by making these evaluations of our work. We are practising the writer’s craft. The difference is that this time round I’m beginning in the middle of the action – no slow backstory as I try to find my way, just all the tools I’ve learnt so far. The most important is that the perfect mood in which to write doesn’t always present itself. It’s the writing that creates the state of mind, a means to move beyond insular thinking. There are days when my spirit is as fragile as a wafer, but by sitting down, trusting, I can feel myself growing, connecting, living.
Last year, whilst I began researching my new book, I launched this blog: I wanted a motivation to write that wasn’t about finishing a novel, worrying about what my agent wanted, or fitting in with what a publisher was looking for.
Several months in, I remembered what it was about writing that I love – storytelling – and I knew I’d keep on writing, no matter what.
In my final year of primary school, the sixth form were given a space in the basement to use as a common room. I’d settle people down in the musty, sagging armchairs, dim the lights and tell stories. I remember how I tip-toed around the room, feeling my audience and guiding them through these tales. For years I’ve taught about the writer’s voice, on and off the page, hosting workshops that look at why we write what we do, and how to bring those words alive for a listening audience.
That’s what we need to focus on as writers – a love of the story, a dedication to telling it without tricks; and we should never be afraid of redrafting, going back to the beginning. A writer discovers what he wants to say in the continual process of seeing what’s been said.
You might want to check out:
- Let’s start at the very beginning: Why Write At All? (collaborativewriter.wordpress.com)
- Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love (danitorres.typepad.com)