The First 10,000 Words

They are scattered about, those first ten thousand words. Cast like jacks among five chapters and thirteen scenes that make up Part One. Such as it is. As a rough outline of eight, perhaps nine, chapters and thirty or so scenes, Part One takes slow, disjointed shape.

Three weeks ago I had an idea. I had two characters. I had a word count of zero. Today I have thirteen souls in various states of literary flesh (one poor guy makes his debut as a corpse, but his death is the snowball at the head of the avalanche). I have ten thousand (and ninety-one!) words. Hundreds more words live in character and setting sketches, research notes and scribbled morning writing prompts that remain to be transcribed into my Scrivener files.

I done wrote some stuff.

I have fallen to the depths of doubt – listening to the 3 a.m. demon who cackles on my shoulder, his reedy voice like the whine of a mosquito in my ear: “You know it’s absolute crap, don’t you?” I have flown to the heights of inspiration – lifted by the angel who tickles my ear lobe with her wings, murmuring in honeyed tones: “Just keep writing, sweetheart. Tell your story.”

My process is all over the place. I am soaking up as many writing tips as I can stand, from the classics such as William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to Larry Brooks’s blog, StoryFix. Larry scares the crap out of me. Every time I read one of his blog posts, I shrivel inside. I can’t live up to his expectations. Then I square my shoulders and dig in again.

I have planned. I have pantsed. I think my way forward is to strive for a happy medium. I need to stay one step ahead of my story; in writing historical fiction, factual events dictate my template. Yet, I can’t risk sticking to a detailed plan lest I miss the direction the story wants to go. I need to stay the hell out of my way.

Reading has never been more important to me than it is now. Plowing breathlessly through Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” I learn that writing in present tense (so freaking risky) brings the reader into the immediacy of the past. I learn that the shadowy characters of history offer us a door to a story. We can still craft original material about those whom written history has fleshed out; but the juicy stories lie with those whom we scarcely know.

Toni Morrison reminds me of the power of opening sentences, of the deafening roar of the silent places. Poets Mary Oliver and Sam Green inspire me to leave behind adjectives and adverbs and seek for another verb or noun that shows, not tells, how something looks, feels, smells, tastes, sounds, how a body reacts, a mouth responds.

I have a title. I have themes. I have a premise – a thirty-word synopsis that states what my story is about. I may even have a plot. I wrote an opening scene and I love it so much that when I am certain this may be the stupidest book ever attempted, I reread it to remind myself that all I want is to tell a good story.

Everything else is a colossal, joyful mess. I haven’t written a complete chapter. I’m not writing chronologically. I’ve just amassed heaps of scenes that I intend to sift into place. One scene leads me to the next, or forces me to jump back to sort out a plot hole – or to create a new one I’ll have to fill in later.

I am building a library of books on medieval France, reading the fine print until my eyes cross. Into my Scrivener files I have inserted photos of holm oak, peregrine falcons, stone cottages, Romanesque churches and Cervélo cycles (bet you didn’t know they had Cervélos in medieval France! Right. So, they didn’t. Much of my story is set in 2010, when it isn’t set in 1210…). I uncover magical connections as I research – what seemed at the outset a hoo-hoo plot device is in fact one of the fundamental beliefs of the culture I am trying to portray. The door opens and my story walks through.

What I am learning, in the hard, slow way that I learn, is that when I write, things happen on the page that I had no idea were waiting to occur. When I hear from other writers that they have their stories planned out, every scene accounted for, before they even begin to write the meat of the story, I’m baffled. I barely know my characters, how could I begin to tell them what to do, much less know what they are up to? We’re in this adventure together and there’s no literary GPS telling me which way to turn.

Completing the first 10K is a milestone. I feel a bit like I did when I ran my first road race so many years ago. “Hell, that was so much fun! Let’s do it again!”, forgetting the many lonely miles of training that led to race day and crossing the finish line.

And like any good runner, I know when to ease up after a hard race. I know the importance of rest before the attack can be renewed. I can do only so much in the time after work, during the busy weekends, in the wee hours before dawn. And I’ve done so much more than I thought possible.

I have other writing goals – those short stories that need revising, polishing and submitting before September journal entry deadlines come crashing down. I may have to set my heart aside for a couple of weeks as I complete other projects. So, I won’t set a deadline on the next 10,000 words. But I will trust them to be there when I am ready.

At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what’s required is persistence. ~ Walter Kirn

20 thoughts on “The First 10,000 Words

  1. I am so impressed with what you have achieved. You are amazing! And I absolutely love reading about your personal experiences with the process of writing. I swear I learn more from reading your blog posts with all their openness and honesty than I learn from many of the more formal this-is-how-to-do-it type postings sprinkled all over the net.
    Unlike you I have succumbed to the internal doubt and have stopped writing, for a while anyway. I just don’t think my story is good enough, deep enough, rich enough, to be what I want it to be. I’m going to let it simmer for a while, and go back to my textiles and wait for the Muse to rise again. I know there are those who say write no matter how you feel, but I can only write when I feel driven to do so. Otherwise it’s just complete drivel!!
    You keep writing and I’ll keep reading your words!! xxx

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  2. Three questions – or rather, two questions and two statements 🙂
    What is a hoo-hoo plot device? I chuckle as I ask, and I think I know, if I were to stop giggling long enough to ponder the question, but still…
    Second, I wonder where this advise is from those who have their points all plotted? I have yet to hear an author say this, but I do believe they exist – there must be ten-thousand successful ways to write a book, but I wonder how many unsuccessful ones…. (?) Statement – as a follow up to those who have it all worked out; the last two authors I remember hearing on NPR said exactly what you have said: it is the characters who tell the story, who guide you, surprise you (Maya Angelou admitted to starting a story about one character, and it was another’s story who demanded to be told, and changed the entire book).
    Second statement, is that I read a book when I was pregnant, that said it is the hours between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., in which the ethereal veil in our mind is lifted, and our consciousness is better able to function, and to communicate with the outer energies. I am not trying to sound mystical, but I will say, it was a rolling over my belly about that time, when I knew, within my soul, that I was carrying a daughter, although it would be several weeks before I knew for sure. My point, is to listen to your voice in the mornings, as that is apparently when your muses are whispering to you.
    Brava on the first 10,000! I can’t wait for more!

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    1. Mundi! I didn’t realize this is you! Makes me so happy to find you here.

      SO, for the hoo-hoo: I’m venturing into paranormal fiction territory and that’s where the hoo-hoo comes in (a GoodReads friend posted the other day, “Magic realism is such a cope-out (sic). I can’t write for beans, what to do? Oh I know, I’ll have the main character talk to ghosts.” I could only laugh – he’ll HATE my shit, I’m sure). But as I’m researching, I learned that one of the central tenets of the religious beliefs of some of my characters is the soul’s state of limbo after tragic death – caught somewhere between reincarnation and eternal rest. So, a puzzle piece clicked into place for me.

      I adore what you say about the magical, mystical hours before dawn. I’m a chronic insomniac and my busy mind is full of creative thoughts during the wee hours.

      I over think, over write, over edit. But once I let go and write, I’m right there with darling Maya Angelou (not in skill or talent, but spirit!): my characters take over. It’s their story after all; I’m just the typist.

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    1. I do a free write first thing in the morning- it amazes me what happens when my brain is still quiet from sleep, open to suggestion, even when I sit there for five minutes, certain I have nothing to say. Once I can get the pen moving, something always happens…

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      1. I just read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and if you haven’t already read it, I think you would really like it.

        “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” (17).

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      2. That’s beautiful. I read this years ago – in fact, gave away my copy in a big book purge in 2006. Bad idea. Even just reading this in snippets is enough inspiration to keep going. Thank you for the reminder. Shall not return home today without new copy!

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  3. I love this. If you ever need a reader, even for a set of eyes, I would be happy to oblige! Another great writing book (and you’ve probably already read it, so forgive me for that) is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (honest to god, it was this woman’s given last name, how fabulous is that?). It’s great, because it helps with your writing, but also helps you get more out of your reading, which in turn, helps with your writing. I know that sounds convoluted, but I swear it works out! 🙂

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    1. Oh, it is a lovely book, I agree. I read Reading Like a Writer a few months before I started writing fiction and it was definitely a source of inspiration. But thank for the reminder- I remember really digging the sections on sentences & paragraphs, which is where I am with Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor – it will be good to compare and contrast the two.

      Be careful what you wish for – I may just take you up on the reading offer. I wouldn’t dream of making anyone suffer through Draft One, but next year sometime I hope to be well into Draft 2 and ready to show it around. Egads. THANK YOU!!

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  4. I read a wonderful quote from Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, that speaks with the voice of your angel. ‘If you find yourself asking yourself ‘Am I really a writer. Am I really an artist?’ chances are, you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.’

    Congratulations! You are an inspiration.

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