The very last chapter of Laurie Alberts’ Showing and Telling is the best one of all, I think. In it, she writes about beginnings and endings, and she encourages us, as writers, to forget all about making it good and just make it.
She writes, “[A]ny way in is a good way in. You can’t let yourself get stuck in rewrite perfectionism before you find your subject and your story. Just start at a place, a moment, a scene, or a voice that excites you. You’ll find your way from there.” She feels that you can’t write a good beginning, i.e., very first passage of the book, until you know what the book is about. “Until you have a fairly solid idea of what’s at stake in your piece and what the themes will be, it’s very difficult to craft the perfect beginning.”
And I thought this was a very freeing idea. She goes on to explain how this approach helped Tolstoy write Anna Karenina. Apparently, his original idea for the novel focused on the country house party scenes, which don’t take place until six chapters into the story. “In his first version, Anna was a crude, hypocritical beauty and her husband, portrayed in the final draft as cold and rigid, was the sympathetic character. Vronsky, Anna’s lover, was a noble artistic fellow instead of the dilettante he ends up being. Character as well as structure evolved. Tolstoy started with a vision of a woman who flaunts rules but he ended up wanting pity for her.” When his vision, as a writer, changed for the novel, the novel changed, but his vision could never have evolved if he hadn’t at least begun the novel.
I think we, as writers, can get so caught up in our heads about how a scene should be, how the tone and voice and theme should go that we sometimes forget that writing is a journey of discovery, for us as well as the readers. As we explore the world of our novels and learn who our characters are, we begin to finally discover what the story is about and who the sympathetic character is. This can only happen if we push deadlines aside and just enjoy the writing, the dreaming with words, that lets us meet intangible people and visit ethereal places, crossing the line between reality and imagination.
Write first, and then rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, until at last the novel is what it should have always been. A reader’s experience with the novel should start with the finished product; the writer’s experience with the novel has to end there. Everything before that point is like a baby’s first steps: clumsy, awkward, but the beginning exploration into something grand.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren