| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft Finding the Secret Door Into Your Novel
If you’ve ever written a novel or tried to write a novel, you’ll understand the immensity of building out a book from nothing.
I’m currently circling my next novel, knocking on doors and peering through fences, trying to find a way in. The most visceral way I can describe this is by having you listen to Rebecca Luker sing the opening few lines of the 1991 Broadway adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden . A little trill of hammered dulcimer, the siren of Luker’s soprano—it’s a thirty-second peek into a luscious, blooming world before we jump to poor, sallow Mary Lennox in India watching everyone she knows die of cholera. Throughout the show, Mary will, as in the book, be sent to her uncle’s estate in Yorkshire to discover the key to the eponymous garden, then the door, and then she’ll enter and bring the whole thing to life.
Before finding the garden, she is cold and “quite contrary”—she rejects imaginative play and lashes out at those who try to help her. It’s a dark world, made darker by the mysteries of the manor where she’s found herself. But our experience as the audience is not dark, because we know from those very first notes that we’ll at some point find the door: We’ll get to enter that garden.
If you’ve ever written a novel or tried to write a novel, or honestly even read a novel, you’ll understand the immensity of building out a book from nothing. That blinking cursor on the white screen can strike terror into the heart of even the most prolific. But is that blank page the beginning? I submit that a novel—or really any written narrative—does not begin with the words you type across your empty screen. A novel begins as a flickering that you sense but you can’t see head-on. A ghost that hovers just behind you, slipping away when you turn fully around. A garden growing behind a high wall, or inside a glass conservatory that you circle and circle, seeking the door.
A novel, no matter its expansiveness in subject or physicality, has a heart. Call it the spark, call it a seed, call it Faulkner’s famous vision of a girl in a tree that inspired The Sound and the Fury . All of these are reductive descriptions. Should we call it the soul of the book? Whatever it is, it is alive, both within and beyond its author. Sometimes it dangles itself in front of you, an apple easily bitten. Sometimes it’s hiding behind massive ivy-covered stone walls.
I’m constantly telling my students that thinking about your project is writing, but I’m always slow to take my own advice. Having just finished page proofs on my forthcoming novel, I now look to the next. I sit among the books I bought for research, typing false starts like a bird pecking glass. I berate myself for not having produced , as a nice fleshy new project is the only thing I feel can cut the tension of the 2023 publication cycle. And I do have an idea, I do have a feeling. There’s a world just out of sight, a garden growing—a pulsing, living thing that I need just as much as it needs me. Through cracks in the walls and dense foliage I sometimes glimpse the thing I’m after, but despite fifteen hundred words from one point of view, three hundred from another, a few serpentine maps, a character outline, I have yet to find my way in. It’s not a matter of creating a beginning—most often the first written words of my novels end up somewhere in the middle of the book. All I need is an in, some entry point from which I can spin and survey the operation. I’d love to open the greenhouse to a dramatic finale, capturing my characters in medias res. But for now I just circle, unable to begin in the middle, unable to begin at the beginning or the end, trying and failing, trying and failing again.
As a writer, every book presents its own unique challenge. This is the wonder of the work, but it’s also what makes the space between projects so daunting. You’ve just trained to run a marathon, and now you need to do a backflip. It’s easy to launch yourself at any pretty thing, if only to avoid the existential dread of project-lessness, the fear that your best is behind you. I have been guilty of diving head-on into a project idea without first checking for what Dickon, The Secret Garden ’s resident teenage druid, would call its “wick-ness”—the green that lies dormant within seemingly dead branches, the slivers of life you can see when you snap certain dried twigs. Since publishing my first book, I’ve made two previous attempts at novels that still live behind locked doors—two previous failures. To me, this looks like vast amounts of time and money spent on research that comes to nothing. If these gardens are in fact growing, they are so nascent that I have to look away, giving them the time to develop into their particular selves. Maybe someday (“book seven?” suggests my agent), I’ll come back to them.
In the meantime, I have found an idea I think is wick. I have the idea! Why can’t I write it? I must remind myself I am not failing—I just haven’t yet gotten in. With patience, with tenacity, I tell myself I’ll find the key and the door that it unlocks. In the past this has been the right bit of research—an anecdote that clears away the ivy, or else a piece of music that gives me access to the ineffable. For my first book, What Should Be Wild , it was discovering Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde and digging into the long lineage and power dynamics of female storytellers. For my forthcoming, Maddalena and the Dark , it was tapping into Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour as a vein to teenage heartbreak. But for The Upstairs House , my second novel, it was patience and time. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of continuing to circle the walls, wearing down the path to find what’s buried beneath.
Of course, finding the entrance is only the first step, and it only gets us to the end of act one. Once you’re in, you must cultivate the growth, and often it is dirty and hot and there is brush to clear and seeds to sow and you won’t know what precisely you’ve planted until you’re much further into the season. This is the tactile work—the craft applied. But then, the seeking is work too. If you are thinking, you are writing. And there’s nothing like the thrill of finally—after months or years of searching—cracking open that door.