I’ve finished nine novels, but I’ve probably started a hundred.
Not a hundred different ones. Just the same ones, multiple times. And that’s where I am now.
Starting a project is, for me, a difficult transition. There are so many pivots to make–away from research, away from outlines and characters and structural thinking–and so many habits to suppress, that I get locked up, caught in a loop like HAL9000. Each time I start putting words on paper, questions arise, doubts are sown.
It’s hardest when it’s a brand-new project…like The Wolf Tree, the one I’m struggling with now.
This one is different in so many ways, it’s no wonder I’ve started and put it back down at least a dozen times.
I wasted a great deal of time searching for a great opening line. We place so much emphasis on that opening line, that opening paragraph–and for good reason–that I got bogged down trying to craft that perfect first sentence. Naturally, it’s a stupid thing to obsess about, especially since at this point, when I’ve only just begun the book, any opening I craft will need to be rewritten.
Once I gave up on creating that award-winning opener, I got bogged down by my characters. Want to know how many times I changed the names of the characters? Go ahead, guess. Eight. Eight times I began writing and eight times I said, Oh, I don’t like that name. Sometimes this was a legitimate concern, as when I had settled on Philip King as my main character’s name. It looked good on paper, but when I began to use it and began to hear it in my head, it was ruh-roh. Philip King became Phil King which became filking (for the uninitiated, “filking” is SF/F fan folk singing, popular at SF/F conventions). I couldn’t have a character whose name resolved to “Filking.” Changing the first name didn’t help much. Clifford King was worse. Charles King (aka Chuck King) was a disaster. This process was repeated for most of the main characters, and that cost me a couple false starts.
With names settled, my next attempts at putting words on paper were thwarted by world-building questions. In the past, when I started in on Book 2 or Book 5 in a series, it was easier. I already knew most of the people in the story, and I’d already built the world they inhabited. So many questions are already answered when you start a sequel. This one, though…it was awful, and it kept smacking me down. Questions about family history and details of setting in the modern timeline were bad enough, but every word I wrote the historical timeline raised doubts. Clothing, accouterments, occupational tools, food, household objects, everything about the historical storyline was unknown or, at least, unsure. It’s a new world for me, this setting of Old Seattle, and I’m just not comfortable in it, yet.
There’s a point, though, where I have to say, Screw it, and press onward, because the most important thing in writing a novel–in the actual, physical writing of a novel–isn’t the first line or the characters’ names or even the details of their life and setting. The one thing that has the greatest effect on my success, that gets me from starting a novel to finishing a novel, is momentum.
If I don’t finish page one, I can’t start page two.
All these aborted starts are me, lurching toward authorial freedom. I can’t just ignore these issues, not right away. I have to learn how to ignore them fresh, each time.
This week, I started The Wolf Tree. Again. It doesn’t have the most brilliant first line, I’m not sure I like Daniel as a first name, and I really don’t know what a man from the Duwamish tribe might have worn in 1860, but that’s what rewrites are for.
There’s always something that can stop me, if I let it.
I just need to shut down a few more of HAL’s higher functions, and we’ll be good to go.