Archive | December, 2014

When writing a novel: where to begin? Or end?

30 Dec

‘The first time he ever flew, he looked out of the window and saw Central Europe passing below him. Polka-squared buildings merged with chockablock blocks and spires which glinted in the sun. Cities and towns meandered between stretches of brown and green fields. Rivers curved, straightened and snaked in the middle of valleys. Wisps of white clouds scudded along, and passed below the wing. He was eight years old, and from that day on he had wanted to be a pilot. He also had an ambition to be a ghost hunter, because his grandmother at teatime used to tell the children ghost stories that she swore were true. Someone, or something, had disturbed her sleep by dragging chains up the steps. Parties took place downstairs when no such function had been arranged. In the haze of conversation and clinking glasses people whispered: ‘we’ve got to escape,’ though Gran never found out from what. Her favourite story was that of a dark figure who leaned over her bed. She had told him to go away, and he had.
When John became an adult, he didn’t fulfill either of his childhood ambitions. He was myopic and so couldn’t be a pilot, and ghost-busting wasn’t a ‘job’, it was something done by priests and spiritualists who believed in that sort of thing. He had a go at staying in a couple of places in East Anglia known to be haunted, but he didn’t see anything, even after he’d groped for his glasses and fumbled them on to his nose. On one occasion, he heard scratching at the door, but when he investigated this evil spirit, it turned out to be the cat. He didn’t believe in ghosts any more.’

O.K., so this is the start of a novel/ story I never wrote – the other paragraphs got caught up in other works, and it’s not exactly a ground-breaking beginning, but it does leave me with the question: how should this continue? Is he
a) going to stay at a haunted Central European hotel and realise that the hotel itself is a ghost?
b) going to fly and find out that the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendants etc. are all ghosts?
c) going to end up on a farm in North East Poland?
d) going to end up being the protagonist in a post-modernist, knowing homage to Alain Robbe-Grillet when everything gradually dissolves into a dream sequence full of unresolved questions and answers?

This is the kind of dilemma that faces writers who just ‘start a project’ without knowing where this is all going to take them. John Irving once said that he started one of his books from the end and worked backwards. Though I can’t pretend I’m a big fan of Irving, I can see the point of what he says. Best selling authors always say how important it is to suck the reader in from the very beginning, because if you haven’t got the reader hooked by p. 10, you’re unlikely to ever get the reader hooked, though of course Malcolm Lowry wasn’t thinking that when he wrote the most over-descriptive opening (Mexico’s Day of the Dead) in his classic book Under the Volcano. As with Irving, I can’t say I like Malcolm Lowry. On the other hand, the quiet and lengthy opening to John Fowles’ The Magus is perfect. It just shows that the opening doesn’t have to be bam-bam-bam. P.D. James also often wrote gentle openings that acted in counterpoint to the murders in her mystery novels.

And how about starting in the middle, (at one of the peaks) and then working your way round that? People often do. You know the scene: a swimming chase through box-jellyfish and shark-infested waters where an angry pearl diver is trying to kill your flawed protagonist because he tried to steal a pearl. Of course all of what led up to this scenario comes in the back story – what he’s doing in this pearl-diving paradise with its attendant dangers.

So, I leave writers with the not at all new, but sobering thought that one of the most difficult things to do is to start a work of fiction. It’s the sigh of someone trying to tell a long story, but not knowing where to begin because it is rather complicated. It’s the sigh of staring at a blank page.


This is one of the poems I talked about in ‘Poetry Weekend’

28 Dec