In the movie The Hours, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf walks halfway down her stairs and pauses. Inspiration has struck. She tells her husband that she believes she has the first line of a novel. The film cuts to her sitting comfortable in a writing chair among the soft morning light and using her favorite pen on lovely paper to construct what becomes the word-for-word first sentence of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
I like this scene because it’s absurd. It’s absolutely nothing like the real life process of writing. Novels are inspired, sure, but that inspiration doesn’t visit us from up high like a muse or like God handing down the fifteen commandments to Moses*. Instead, novels linger in our imagination for days or months or years until we finally decide it’s time to let them live outside our imagination.
When I pause to think I have the perfect first sentence, it doesn’t emerge as a complete sentence. Like everyone, I have ideas that I have to translate into words, and translations evolve from the idea to the idea’s representation on the page.
And writing novels isn’t scenic and softly lit. It’s a daily process of hammering out a few words, paragraphs, or pages until, several months later, you actually have something. Then there are the years of revision. The first sentences of every novel I’ve written came at least a year after the original draft of the novel was complete. They are all revisions. The first sentence of Madhouse Fog was one of the last things I wrote.
Also, Virginia Woolf looked nothing like Nicole Kidman, and the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway isn’t that cool.
Then again, I’m a very different writer from Virginia Woolf. Woolf said that writers need to have a room of one’s own and a monthly stipend that allows one to focus solely on writing. I still don’t have either of those things. And it’s okay. Charles Bukowski said something like, “No writer who could write worth a damn could write in peace.” I believe in that. Not because it’s necessarily true. Just because it’s a better representation of the world I live in.
So in honor of these thoughts, I want to include a column that I wrote for Razorcake back in 2007. It’s about writing the first draft of Drinks for the Little Guy. I think it’s an honest representation of what writing a first novel was like for me. It’s definitely not pretty like a Hollywood movie.
Here’s a link to download the PDF of the column: Carswell_Column_Razorcake_39
*Perhaps you were thinking there were only ten commandments. You forget that God handed Moses fifteen, and he dropped the stone tablet with the first ten. At least that’s the way Mel Brooks and I remember it.