Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Almost Like Falling in Love

We authors often think our books are our beloved offspring. We give birth to them, we nurture and guide them, and when we’ve done all we can to make them strong and smart, off they go into the world, carrying with them our hopes and dreams.

But while I consider my finished books my children, starting a new book is more like making a baby—less maternal than amorous. Venturing into a new writing project is like beginning a new love affair.

When my radar picks up a new story idea, I approach cautiously, with both optimism and trepidation. From a distance it looks cute, but up close will it seem quite so attractive? Or will I be disappointed as its flaws become evident? What will its personality be like? Will it be easy to get along with, or will it fight with me and skewer my ego? Will we stay together for the long haul, or will I want to kick it to the curb by chapter three?

I start out slowly, feeling it out, sizing it up. Should I open the story in this character’s point of view or in that one’s? On the beach or in the kitchen? With a cold body or with a hot kiss? Should I confront this new story audaciously (“Let’s get naked, dude!”), edge into things carefully (“Excuse me, do you have the time?”) or opt for something in between?

I try different approaches and test its response. Does it start opening up, or does it shut down?

Getting to know a new story takes time. It reveals some parts of itself and conceals others. I need to discover its personality—is it funny? dramatic? whiz-kid smart? slacker-mellow? I’ve got to discover its rhythm—ambling? jogging? tearing down the road on a Harley, spewing plumes of dust in his wake?

I want the relationship to work. I put a lot of effort into it. In fact, too often I find myself putting most of the effort into it, while the story just lazes in bed, offering an occasional, “If you want,” or “Whatever.”

Gradually, I get comfortable around the story. No more advances and retreats. No more self-doubt and questioning (kitchen or beach? corpse or kiss?) Things seem to be progressing, so I let down my guard and start to trust it—and myself.

In time I reach the end of the third chapter, or the twenty-thousand-word point, or the first crisis in my plot. In other words, the end of the beginning. In other words, Commitment Time. Time to assess things and see whether this affair is really worth pursuing. Do I conclude that the more I get to know the story, the more I like it? Or is it turning out to be a dud? Maybe it’s too stubborn, or too withdrawn, unable to share itself with me. Maybe it’s boring.

It’s so gorgeous, I might choose to give the relationship a little more effort and see if I can get things moving in the right direction. On the other hand, gorgeous or not, maybe I should just cut my losses and show it the door. Some potential books, no matter how hunky, simply aren’t worth it.

All my new projects are appealing when they first present themselves. They look so dazzlingly handsome from a distance, when they’re more imagination than reality. They beckon, they arouse my fantasies, they suck me in and make me want to give my soul to them in a gift-wrapped box. But then I start getting to know them...and some of them turn out to be major losers, regardless of their bedroom eyes and six-pack physiques and alluringly husky voices.

Despite knowing that a new project may not turn out to be the love of my life, or even a satisfying fling, I hope with each new project that this time I won’t wind up nursing a broken heart. I begin every new manuscript believing this is The One, this project will fulfill my every desire and the love affair will last until I type “The End.”

That’s the beauty of starting a new book: it’s something to believe in. It teems with promise. You always hope, as that sexy sweetheart of a story looms into view, that it will turn out to be the real thing.


  1. Amazing essay and so true! I'm always hearing the siren call of the new while I'm tangled up in the old.

  2. What a great way to look at the adventure of starting a new book.

  3. I loved the way you expressed it, Judith -- the sizing up and feeling out that we do as we begin a new story. I'm at that stage with one of mine right now, and it's like getting to know a new person, hoping they'll become a friend... ;)