Waiting for the voice

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. . .

Author: Susan

This post has 4 Comments

  1. Anonymous on May 27, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Ever eloquent Susan, thank you! I've tried explaining to friends this week why this newest WIP has been the hardest to really move ahead. The fact that someone is actually waiting for those first few chapters could also play a part. :-/

    But that fact also spurred me to write earlier in the process than I typically do. Usually my heroine is talking to me before I write. This time–not yet.

    So I thank you for being a pilgrim who willingly sheds light on the path so some of us coming along behind see your light and think: “Ah–someone is ahead; they've trodden this path, they've reached a turning point and left a torch to help me find the way.”

    I thank you–immensely.
    Mary Kay

  2. Leah Morgan on May 28, 2011 at 2:35 am

    Your anguish is something we can't actually mourn;it produces such beautiful scenery. Thanks for the transparency. Lovely, lovely images.

  3. Lori Benton on May 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    It's a magical chemistry isn't it? We do what we have to, to find it again. And again. 🙂

    Great post. You encourage me.

  4. Susan Meissner on May 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Thanka for the encouraging words, Mary Kay, Leah, and Lori. You get it. That makes me smile!

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