The Starting Line

November 18th, 2007

Nothing is more fun for me than beginning to write a novel. Sitting down with that electric feeling that comes when I enter an entirely new world, expecting that this time the book’s going to stay on track, this time I’ll manage my characters instead of letting them manage me, this time the finished story will bear some vague family resemblance to the one I originally thought I was writing.

Why is this such an exhilirating stage? For one thing, of course, the beginning of every journey is more fun than the journey itself. When I leave for Asia every year, what I think about as I head for the airport is being in Asia, not twenty hours trapped in an airplane seat designed by someone who apparently bends differently than I do. Not eating re-reheated mystery meat at 35,000 feet while the child sitting behind me practices kicking in three-quarter time on the back of my chair. And when I write the first sentences of a novel, I’m more or less seeing the book finished, with an award-winning cover design, on the front table at Barnes & Noble. Of course, what’s actually in store is a year hunched over a keyboard trying to think up a synonym for “truculent.”

All this comes up now because for a few weeks I’ve been between books while the people at William Morrow review the book proposals I sent them and figure out which (if any) of them they want me to write next. And since it is absolutely, karmically certain that whichever one I just jump in and start will not be the one they choose, I’ve sort of been at wit’s end. Then, about a week ago, a character stood up and waved hello. I thought about him and wrote a little bit about him. I talked with my wife and my agent about him. Then I sat down and started to write a novel about him.

(Those four parallel “about him” structures are intentional. Having just finished implementing another spellbindingly good copy edit by Maureen Sugden, who has now brought order and consistency to both the Poke Rafferty novels, I’m extremely conscious of repetition.)

So I’m around 9000 words now, and it’s just sheer pleasure. And why shouldn’t it be? The best thing about starting a novel is that I haven’t made any mistakes yet. I haven’t spent most of a chapter meticulously laying track for a plot line I’ll abandon in three weeks. I haven’t done my best descriptive writing in years to introduce a character whom I’ll ultimately drop. I haven’t saddled my most important characters with verbal tics or stammers or Middle European accents that cease to be fun to write at just about the time I realize that this character is going to talk throughout the entire book.

So right now, I’m playing. I’m dropping seeds onto the field of my imagination and seeing what sprouts. Writing should be playing once in a while. God knows it can get grim quickly enough. But most of us probably started writing in the first place because it gave us pleasure. It was fun. Then, somewhere along the line, three things happened, at least to me. (1) I began to take myself seriously. (2) My Inner Critics found (and used) their voices. (3) I started using talent as an integer in the equation that defined me. And anything that threatened my perspective of myself as talented (a bad 30 or 40 pages, for example) by extension threatened pretty much everything I believed about myself.

I know that this book is going to get difficult. I’m aware that I’ve probably already made some bad choices, choices I’ll have to deal with fifteen or a hundred pages down the line. I know that adjectives will abandon me, characters will talk like the list of contents on a cereal box, my hard drive will fail, the dog will eat the manuscript, whatever scraps of talent I’ve managed to patch together into the ungainly Frankenstein’s monster that writes my books will sputter and fail.

But I also know that I’ll keep writing through these crises, because I always have. And, what’s more, I’ll learn from the mistakes I make, and when this book is finished I’ll be just a little better as a writer than I am now.

And for right now, I’m having fun, and I’ll accept that.

3 Responses to “The Starting Line”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    You have such a great perspective on your process. You have made my process fun for me again. After reading your last few posts, I saw what I was doing with fresh eyes and this weekend, writing felt great. For the first time ever, I’ve got time SCHEDULED on a workday so that I can do more. I don’t know what it is about the things you’ve been saying, but you have really helped me. Thank you.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa —

    My perspective is good sometimes and bad sometimes, like everybody else’s, but I’ve written a bunch of novels and seen almost all of them through, so I have the scars and calluses that come with a couple million words, and I’ve learned that even the deepest hole can usually be (a) avoided and/or (b) dug out of. I no longer think that a bad week means that I’m washed up. So I have a kind of security that I think comes with just spending a lot of time in the trenches.

    I’d love to know how your book comes along. I’ll drop by your site, but send me a note every now and then.

  3. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Your perspective has been nothing but helpful so far. Your interest is very generous and I will be sure to check in with you now and than. Thank you for your kindness.

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