The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part One – Where does a story start?
Richard Walsh is writing his debut novel. A colleague and friend of the editor, Richard is going to be producing a greenhorn novelist blog exclusively for The Scribbler for the foreseeable future.
During the series he will discuss his experiences in the industry so far including communication with publishers, agents, the processes of writing, developing ideas, nurturing characters and will touch on every aspect of the craft.
In this, the first part of blog post number one (Richard was so keen to do what comes naturally he wrote a lot more than anticipated. Not that his enthusiasm is a bad thing – Ed), he talks about how the idea for his first novel came about and how much it has already progressed. As more posts are published the more he’ll reveal about life as a working novelist.
Please read, enjoy and feel free to comment. Richard will be on hand to answer any questions, comment on your responses and generally be open for discussion on what he’s written.
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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part One
Where does a story start?
Thirty thousand words deep, this is the story of how mine began. Seeing as its incipient ideas have been rattling inside me for the last three or four years, quite possibly in the least efficient and effective way possible. It’s been a protracted labour. I hope I’m entering the final trimester. Epidural, anyone?
Ravelled in with that question, because this is my first novel, is the question of where does a writer start?
I can’t claim the title of writer yet, I think. I am, I hope, a work in progress. My credentials: I’ve written a few short stories, I’ve an MA in Creative Writing, and it’s what I spend almost all my spare time doing. So, then, these reports are not from a published sage, but rather an ink-spattered greenhorn. Dispatches from the front line, with an aim to providing comfort, advice and warnings.
Four years ago, when I was living in London, I started playing a game. I would ask myself questions about people on buses, in the street, in shops: what’s his story? Where is she from, and where is she going? Does she regret that tattoo? Were they happy when they got up this morning? Will they still be happy when they go to bed tonight? The most incidental of objects or occurrences could be the spark for an extended reverie: a torn-off pigeon wing on the pavement, a rag of bright flesh still adhering to the feathers; a woman stepping from the dentist with half her face drooping as if struck by a stroke.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer back then. Although I’d always read voraciously, the thought had simply never occurred to me. I didn’t have a degree in English or Drama; I’d studied Geography. Interesting enough, but not one that had ever raised notions of future literary greatness. To be a writer you had to be born to it, or selected in infancy, fed with regular dollops of bookish royal jelly so I had a proper life. I even got a proper graduate job. That first morning, when I walked to work over London Bridge in the dawn with the grey tide of commuters, I was filled with pride and excitement.
By noon I hated it
I loathed it with an intensity that shocked me. I stuck it for a few months, and spent a miserable winter trying to work out what the hell I was going to do. I think the daydreams were some kind of defence mechanism, a pressure valve. As I became more and more frustrated and unhappy with the direction my life was going, they played more frequently. I was haunted by them. Multi-sensory visions, fat with smells, textures, sounds, emotions, on public transport, at dinner, in the middle of the night, in the shower.
Finally, I bowed and cracked. I started writing down these scenes, and turning them into short stories. I discovered I was quite good- not great, but not horrific- and, more importantly, I loved it. I didn’t just have to read: I could write.
I quit the proper job. I went back to my home town. I enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. A year when all I did was write and read and talk writing with like-minded people; for me, quite magical.
It was during this time that the ideas that would form my current novel began to appear. They came as a series of visions, or even a feeling in the gut, rather than springing from a central question or dilemma, which were the usual starting points for previous stories. A girl in a tower, high above a city. An old man running through crowded streets. Wading birds probing mud, and the sun coming up above the Atlantic. Brief, vivid, fleshy vignettes playing in my mind.
The problem was I didn’t have a central story or question. All I had were characters and places in search of a story. They exasperated in their tenuousness. All this golden straw and no baler-twine. I knew the place and the time. I knew who. I didn’t know what or why. I tried out different stories. None did the feeling justice. What did these characters want? What was the question? Nothing worked.
In the end, I buried that novel, and turned my attention to other stories and projects. It was only in March last year, that the story clawed its way back to daylight.
Words: Richard Walsh
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Tune into The Scribbler next week for the second part of Richard Walsh’s greenhorn novelist blog, part one.
Watch Guardian Fiction and Booker Prize winner Ben Okri talk about his approach to writing below:
Have you got any ideas you want to develop into a story? Got a question for our blogger? Comment, discuss and ask away using the comment below.