Kim Wright teaches “So You Want to Write a Novel: How to Get Started and Keep Going” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday December 13 from 6 to 9 pm. Register
Writers use a lot of analogies for the sense of disorientation and fear that comes with starting a book. E.L Doctorow famously said “Writing is like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My friend and fellow novelist Kim Boykin less famously (but quite consistently) claims that her stories are dictated to her by her characters. Their voices, she says, come to her out of the ether and page by page, each plot twist is a mystery, right up to the point that the characters finally explain how their story ends.
Either way, the point is this. You don’t have to know everything to begin.
You don’t have to know much at all.
I think of each story as a room and that there are many doors into that room—many ways to enter and oriented yourself. Some writers won’t write the first word before they figure out the plot. Others, like Kim, connect to the voice of their characters and some of the more high-minded among us are motivated by theme, choosing to write the books they think the world needs to read, based on the topical issues that most inspire their authors. For me, the door frequently opens in the form of an image. Which can be scary since image, by its very nature, gives you both everything and nothing. The whole sense of the story world reveals itself in one fell swoop but you don’t have a clue what any of it means.
A good example of this is my Last Ride to Graceland, which in many ways has been my most successful book. I was lying in bed on a rainy Sunday morning perusing the Charlotte Observer and I noticed an article on how they were restoring the car Elvis Presley drove on the last day of his life. It had been wrapped in plastic in Graceland for nearly forty years, shoved in a corner of a massive garage, just waiting to reveal its secrets. An intriguing enough notion on its own, but suddenly an image flashed into my mind—not of a 1977 Stutz Blackhawk spending decades being ignored in a garage in Graceland but of that same big black muscle car zooming down a road in rural Alabama. “Fairhope,” I thought, although I didn’t know why, but I did know that a woman was driving the car, a woman who had been born shortly after Elvis died. And I didn’t know precisely how her age fit in, although it was certainly a clue to the mystery of the book but there was trash in the car, trash left over from 1977 and the last time the car had been driven, and that seemed essential too and for some ungodly reason I looked over and saw she had a coon hound on the passenger seat beside her.
And so the book began. No matter how a writer begins or which door they choose to enter into the world of the story, it often feels a bit mysterious when they start. Uncertain and dimly lit, like the nighttime fog EL Doctorow described. But the point is that you must trust in the story’s willingness to unfold itself over time and your own ability to wait, with patience and loyalty to the process, before you even begin to see the big picture.
In that sense, the writer is the story’s first reader—the first to feel its pleasure and mystery and pain and power. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to know much of anything. You just have to open the first page and begin.
Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters, and her latest novel, Last Ride to Graceland, which was the 2017 recipient of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. For the past three years she has been a developmental editor through The Story Doctor, helping writers with issues of story arcs, structure, and pacing. At Charlotte Lit, Kim teaches classes and serves as a coach in the Authors Lab program.