For over eight years, my writing was anchored in a single novel. I wrote the first paragraph, the prologue, in 2002, after reading a factoid in a travel guide which conjured up a strong image. Here’s the paragraph, the only one which has not changed one iota in the many (MANY) rounds of revisions:
In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.
I had no idea I was beginning a book. I just felt compelled to capture the image. The timing was everything: I held that image in my mind just at the time when I was being introduced to kathak dance, and its history. And I had recently returned from Rajasthan. The three together started to form something. A setting, a starting point, an ending point, some characters. Without even realizing it, I had embarked on writing a novel.
Then I did what many novice writers do: I wanted to tell a specific story, and I tried to create the characters who could tell it. I imposed upon them my own goals. The story had to begin at a certain place, and end at a certain place, and certain events had to happen at certain times. Inevitably, I got stuck a few times. And each time, the only thing that allowed me to get unstuck was to try to think about what my characters would really do given the circumstances in which I had placed them. It was tricky, trying to keep the essence of what had compelled me in the first place to write the story, yet letting the characters lead the way. They did not always take the paths I wanted to take, and I had to learn to accept that. And so some plotlines receded, and others came to the fore. One character I loved died much earlier than I’d wanted. Another whom I’d created as a secondary character ended up shining. And after I’d finished the book several times over, I went and changed the point of view.
Now as my manuscript undergoes some edits in the hands of my agent, I am turning to my Next Book. It may well be the next in this “series,” and I put that in quotes because I mean it loosely. It will not be a sequel, but rather a continuation with different characters, set 300 years later, i.e. in the mid-1800s. As I look at the considerable amount of research I already put into this new project over the past few years (each time I foolishly thought my first book was finished and that I had time to look to the next one), I see that I have learned something over the past eight years. (So at least there’s that.)
My first realization is that my ideas to date have been too broad. I’ve thought to encompass too many different worlds and circumstances, too many different characters, too many years. And so, here I am, asking myself the kinds of questions that I didn’t bother to ask myself the first time around, the ones I now feel I should ask myself so as to be more efficient and a better writer: what, really, is the story I want to tell? And whose story is it? And how will that character change over the course of the story? And from whose point of view should it be narrated?
Suddenly, I feel as though I am on a boat at the water’s edge, with endless possibilities. I can sail wherever I want! I can let the wind take me this way, then tack the other way. I can make up any story. I can fashion new characters out of any shred of my imagination. And boy does this all feel daunting! After eight years of writing and revising, working with actual words on actual pages, I need to re-acquaint myself with an entirely different workflow: just thinking. Spending two hours pondering and musing, perhaps picking up a book or two from my shelves and leafing through them, most definitely surfing the Web, and reminding myself that this is as valid a part of the process as the writing and the revising. (It is, right?) I’m giving myself the summer to hone in on the main characters, the specific setting(s), the timeline. This was so much easier the first time around, when I was completely clueless! A little bit of knowledge is a difficult thing to handle.
I wonder, how do others go about launching into new creative projects of this scale? This may be my second book, but it’s nonetheless a new experience. Which is what makes it so exciting.