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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The First Hurdle

The good news that I have now written nine chapters of my next book.

The bad news is that five of them are Chapter 1 and four of them are Chapter 2.

In other words, things are going about normal. With three novels under my belt, I can actually now make sweeping generalizations about my writing process, and here comes one. The early stage involves a lot of writing and re-writing of the initial chapters. More than once I have read that the biggest hurdle to completing a book is getting past the first fifty pages, and I understand why. I do not know if there is something magic about the number fifty, but I do know that it takes about that many pages for the creation of a book to attain lift-off. Until you get to that point, you are like an airplane taxiing on the runway. The main difference, at least in my case, is that the plane is (usually) not continually backing up and starting again from a dead stop. Come to think of it, neither am I, so maybe the airplane comparison is not completely inapt after all.

A lot of things have to happen in those first few chapters that are crucial to everything that happens after. The characters have to be drawn right, which is to say that they must be consistent with what will be happening further down the line. Some characters start out as placeholders or plot devices, and they need to be fleshed out so that the story has some hope of feeling like it is really happening. The writing process takes up too much time for me to want to spend it all with a bunch of robots. Since my characters are going to be residing in my head for months and years, I want them to be good—or at least interesting—company.

Also, events need to happen in a way that leads to where I need the story to go. Plotting a story is basically a long chain of decisions. I suppose the reason that the early stages are more challenging is that there are too many possibilities. Once you get past a certain point, the possibilities become more manageable because so many branches of the decision tree have been pruned.

Maybe a better comparison for explaining the challenge of getting past the first few chapters is lighting a fire. This is an activity that has been particularly relevant lately since it has been extremely cold in Ireland. Since a mass of polar air arrived from Sibera last week (dubbed “the Beast from the East”) and met Storm Emma coming up from the Bay of Biscay, building fires has become a critically important chore so, yes, let us compare the fifty-page barrier to building a fire.

For all the reason mentioned above—and maybe some others—there is something wondrous that happens around fifty pages in. It is akin to the moment when the turf in the fireplace ignites and begins to burn on its own. From that moment on, you are not exactly home free, but everything is easier. You are no longer going back and laboring on top of already-trodden ground. You can focus entirely on going forward. If the first few chapters tend to get over-written, the rest of the book—at least in my case—is always in danger of not being sufficiently polished. Because of the momentum. I just want to keep the story going and not “waste” time looking back.

I am still looking forward to getting to that point, but at least I know from experience it is not far away.

In the meantime, let us observe that today would have been the 91st birthday of the journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez. He was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, Colombia, which he immortalized in his books as the fictionalized village of Macondo. I have previously written on one of my other blogs about what his works—first and foremost One Hundred Years of Solitude—meant to me, particularly at the point in my life when I first read and studied them in South America.

Literary heroes can be daunting because they pose the danger of making someone like me feel his attempts at writing are pointless when there are books of García Márquez’s caliber already out there. Personally, I prefer instead to take comfort from the probable fact that, with each and every one of his books, he would have experienced the same exact frustration as me in getting past those first fifty pages.

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