Therese here to introduce you to our newest contributor, bestselling novelist Julianna Baggott. This is her first official post with us. Welcome, Julianna!
I recently confessed to a poet friend who’s writing her first novel my secret to writing a first novel – the brilliant accidental loophole that I found on my first try.
The background is that I never wanted to write novels – not at the beginning. I was a short story writer, but an agent had read one of my stories in a magazine and asked me if I was working on a novel. I lied and said I was working on a novelized version of the story he liked so much. It wasn’t so much a lie as it was an automatic truth. An agent was interested in a story of mine? Yes, I was novelizing it. He asked for the first fifty pages. I told him it’d take a month to polish them. I wrote them and sent them. My plan was that he’d love the first fifty pages so much he’d send me a contract and he’d be obliged to sell my short story collection. I would pretend to finish said novel for the rest of my career. That’s not how it worked out.
As of next month, I’ll have published 19 books; none of them is a short story collection.
In retrospect, it’s probably accurate to say that the only way I’d have ever written a novel is with no intention of doing so. Because I only had to write the first fifty pages of a novel I never had to finish, I got out of writing the opening of my first novel. I never had to have that incredible courage. I had a cocky courage of another variety – perhaps handed down to me by my maternal grandfather, a pool-hall hustler – but not the real stuff. I never had to summon the bravery to say: And now, I will write the first sentence of my novel. And now I will conclude the first paragraph of my novel. And now, there is the first chapter. I never had to see the whole thing in my head. I never had to worry that I couldn’t see the whole thing in my head. I only had to write – one sentence to the next, scene upon scene , a story that felt like you wanted to read on, a first fifty pages of undeniable … promise.
I only had to promise. I didn’t have to deliver.
I only had to make up a novel. I didn’t have to sit down and write one.
It wasn’t until I started my second novel that I realized that all novels are, in fact, made up – by definition.
My current process entails a lot of sketching of the whole, a lot of architectural thought, a lot of talking about the idea with friends and colleagues – those I deeply trust – seeing if it passes the test of old-fashioned storytelling.
This part of the process is important, but I never know if I’ve got a real novel on my hands until I sit down to fake the first sentence, to fake the first paragraph, the first chapter. I don’t know if it’s going to work until I start making it up on the page.
I still fake it. When I first start, I’m still that novice, that first-timer, who’s promising the reader that they’ll want to turn the page. I’m still just trying to be undeniable sentence to sentence, scene to scene.
That agent read the first fifty pages of the novel I never intended to write and he sent me a note – it said, “I love the pages. I can’t wait to read the rest!”
And in those seven words – I can’t wait to read the rest! – I became a novelist. My job from making a promise turned into delivering a novel. There’s a point in the process of every novel I write when it shifts in just this particular way. That’s when the novel takes root, when, somewhere deep in my own head I decide that I need to read the rest. To make it up.
Writing novels, in some ways, does get easier. For one, I no longer worry about cutting. I know that the best parts will settle like silt in my subconscious and, one day, stir up again. But I’ve found that no matter how many novels I’ve published, each novel teaches me how to write it and that’s how I’ve learned to use the loophole every time. I don’t sit down to write a novel. I sit down to make up an opening that compels me to write the rest.