There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. – W. Somerset Maugham
The question of what comes first can be paralyzing.
Where do you begin, how do you start, where’s the entry point?
I’m 38,000 odd words through this second book project and I think I’ve lost my place.
But that’s ok, it just means I have to take some time and think through what I’m trying to do again.
Start anywhere, but start
The thing I’ve learned over many years, many days of beginning with a blank sheet of paper is that you can start anywhere.
The trick is to start.
In fact, you can trick yourself into starting by doing something that’s a warm up.
For example, when I write, I always begin with three paragraphs of anything, whatever is in my head, whatever comes to mind even if it’s complete nonsense.
It’s like oiling the gears and getting the mechanism to move by hand – it’s the thing you do before you get going.
And then the first words start and flow and trickle their way onto the page.
Follow an idea where it goes
Once you have something, anything, you can develop that idea.
Now, imagine if you will, a blank page.
You’ve put down an idea and drawn a circle around it – it’s something to start with.
That idea leads to another one, or it leads to a fact or a point or a description of something that happened.
You write that down, somewhere near the first point and draw a line to connect them.
And then you keep going, perhaps that second point goes in the direction of a third point.
But it also sparks the creation of a fourth, which in turn sparks two more, one of which happens to be connected to the third.
What I find is that when you do this, you end up with a collection of related ideas.
You will have all done this kind of thing – perhaps even named it and done it intentionally.
If you’re brainstorming, or mind-mapping or concept mapping – then you’re doing something with nuggets of information and lines of connection, perhaps labeled.
A structure will eventually emerge
When you take the time to get those ideas down then inevitably a structure emerges from that mass of material.
It always happens – it’s the nature of things.
Or, at least, it’s in the nature of human beings to notice patterns and regularities.
So we look around at random masses of dirt and see valleys and hills and mountains and plateaus and volcanoes.
We see geography – we tell the story of the land and come up with words that describe the thing we see – and that’s what we do when we see the once blank page filled with notes – we see patterns and structure that we can express using other words.
The structure is not something that exists yet anywhere else but in your mind – it’s what you see when you see what you’ve done – but if you capture the structure, draw it out, now you have something that can guide you as you explore the terrain further.
Structure or a whole?
A structure is one thing – you can create a structure if you list a table of contents or create a hierarchy.
Your structure creates a form for your ideas – and that’s good – you’ve now got shape.
This is what John McPhee writes about, how all his publications have an underlying form or shape or structure underpinning them, a drawing or diagram that helps him put things in their place.
But you can make a structure out of a couple of twigs on the ground, but do they make a whole as well?
I suppose the point I’m trying to drive towards is the difference between scaffolding and a skeleton.
Scaffolding helps you put up a house but then you take it away and that’s it done.
You build the house out of bricks and cement and glass, those are the components that you place and connect, like you do with nodes and lines.
But you’re then left with a house – a single word that captures the whole structure, made up of walls and a roof and windows – more words that describe the structure.
The reason I think this distinction is important is because you can have structure without having a whole and that’s usually going to result in a problem at some point.
I think this is most obvious in how-to books, how to become more successful, how to do well at something, that sort of stuff.
They will have a structure, a framework, something that they promise will give you a result – if you do everything they ask you to do.
The thing that you will realize is that their structure is incomplete – it often covers much of what is necessary but not all of what is needed.
It’s like the 80/20 rule – that works in many situations.
You can get most of the way there if you do the most important things.
But there are many cases where you have to do all of the things that matter to make things work.
In your house, for example, you need a roof and walls and windows and doors and the other things that make up a house.
If you stopped with 80% you wouldn’t have a home – you’d have an unfinished project.
100% of what is necessary matters in this case.
I need to revisit my models
At this point, this many words into my project, I’m realizing that my structure is a little rickety – I need to go back to the plans and figure out what is going on, figure out the main parts and get some order into the process.
At the same time this period of reflection, this post itself, is helping make sense of what I need to do next.
One of which is making clear what is and what isn’t possible when you’re trying to understand a situation by listening to others and I want to pull that together in a model, perhaps in the next post.