Novel Writing: Dealing With the Anxiety of Getting Started

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Before we start learning the nuts and bolts of novel writing, let’s deal with some of our boogiemen. Face it, we may want to write—we may get a million dollar idea every day, but actually putting pen to paper—fingers to keyboard can fill us with dread. As Black people, most of us have been taught to be humble. There is nothing humble about writing. If we write things we want others to read, we must first believe that we have something to say that others will find interesting or helpful. We might interpret that as arrogance. Others may interpret that as putting on airs. Remember the words of Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Writing is an act of defiance against everything the massa has trained us to believe about ourselves. It’s easier to sit back and complain about how Whites misrepresent us than it is to dare to represent ourselves. If you are following this tutorial on writing, you are taking that dare.

To begin writing, we must first read—just like a singer begins by listening to music. This, however, is a two edged sword that can derail us if we aren’t careful. When I first thought of writing my autobiography, I started by rereading one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, just to get a feel for what that genre expected of me. Because I was unaware of the pitfalls, that was a big mistake for me. I read her stuff and said “Oh my God! I can‘t do that!” I was so discouraged by the sheer magnitude of her standard that I nearly gave the project up as a lost cause. Of course, I couldn’t give it up. It was in my heart to write that book and it would not let me rest until I did. Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Samuel Delany, Toni Morrison, Nalo Hopkinson, et al, are not there to discourage us. They are at the vanguard of the heritage that is ours to claim, if we dare to do so.

The Dreaded Black Sheet of Paper

The most daunting part of writing a book is looking at that first blank sheet of paper, knowing we have to fill it and hundred seventy pages like it with words that just aren’t there. As a writer, I don’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the whole darn thing. Instead, I break it down into little bite sized steps. This will happen, then that will happen. Build a skeleton, so to speak or a story line. Writing the novel will then be filling in the flesh on the bones or taking the story from the first step to the next. The story itself will be all the things that get you from point A to point B. Then you will have your first draft. There will be a lot of going back and forth, creating new ideas and discarding ones that aren’t working.

How do we do that? There isn’t just one way to do it. We might start with a character, and then think about the kinds of situations such a character would find him/herself in. We might start with a situation, then think of the kinds of characters who would create such a situation. We might start with a vague idea and just let it develop into situations and characters to dramatize that idea. We are creating worlds which don’t exist, so it doesn‘t matter what we start with. Start with whatever we have and let it flow. As writers, our favorite question should be “what if.” What would happen if we take a character like Uncle George and put him in the situation Uncle Harry is dealing with? Suppose we write about the situation that happened yesterday but instead of this happening, that happened? Let your imagination go for it and your story will fly.

Stayed tuned for the next chapter: How to structure a novel.
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