The first fifty pages of a novel are always the hardest for me to write. I keep thinking surely as I become more experienced at this the first five chapters will become easier to write, not harder. An experienced marathon runner doesn’t struggle with those pesky first five miles, does he? No. Does the prima ballerina bite her nails over the first five minutes of Swan Lake? No. Does the mason lose sleep over the first fifty bricks of a new bridge? I seriously doubt it.
But there’s something vast and bottomless about the novelist’s blank page. And since I do much of the research and big-picture-plotting before I start, I begin each new book with a brain congested with facts and possibilities and no confidence in the best way to expel them onto the page. The release must be perfectly timed, expertly sifted. The blank page is terribly blank. The full head is terribly full. Full head and blank page should be perfect partners. But they are not. Not for me.
Over the last two months I have started the New Book three times. I have three files in my computer: Girl in the Glass, Girl in the Glass2 and Girl in the Glass3. All three have been edited and massaged over many cups of java and cans of Diet Coke. Lest you summon too much awe, you should know 2 and 3 are actually morphisms of the first. But all are a superhuman attempt to grasp the thinnest of things: the unwritten story. The characters aren’t dimensional yet, they don’t trust me, they don’t reveal all to me. Not yet. And the place where they live, even if it is the very place where I was born- the place I know better than any other place in the world, is not quite the same place for them as it is for me. It is almost like the geography of dreams: When you dream of your house, but it is not quite your house. Everything is just a little off.
And it’s this way every time I begin a new book. I have finally come to expect it. Expecting something nasty doesn’t change the nastiness but it does remove some of the fear factor.
I think I have at last have figured out what the secret is to finally having the reins of the story and why it takes so many attempts to finally have them in my hands. I have to hear my main character talk to me. Yes, I need to hear voices in my head before I am sane enough to begin writing. And dash it all, she will not speak to me until I pound out those first fifty pages without her.
This is how it goes. I study her. I interview her. I clothe her and give her backstory and childhood trauma and joy, and a high school diploma and her best friend and her favorite dessert and a few quirks and talents and habits, good and bad. And then I concoct a life for her that is to be tested and I toss her into this carnival of choices and I follow behind her with my little note pad.
But the story does not begin until she turns around and speaks to me. And she will not speak to me until I begin the story.
It’s as simple as that.
And as spectacularly hard.
So now I know. Get ready to write. Get ready to listen. Write. Keep writing in the silence. Keep listening. Keep writing. She will speak. But only when you are already writing.
Maybe now that I know this it won’t take fifty pages to hear her speak.
I’d be happy with twenty-five. . .