Tag: Starting a novel

Mario Castro: John Steinbeck. Vintage Portrait Drawing

Mario Castro: John Steinbeck. Vintage Portrait Drawing

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

The above quote is from John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck.

Though Where the Air Is Sweet is about to be published (just saw the final cover art and copy today), I am working on another book. It is somewhat misleading to say “I’m working on it.” It is nebulous at this point. Still forming, gestating even. And I am terrified. Hence my latching onto the above quote and sharing it here.

I published a few Writer’s Tips blog posts awhile back. I hope to add to the list. I used to be very hungry for such tips when I was starting to write my first novel. And so I want to share what I have learned to help others.

But Steinbeck offers the tip of all tips. It is from an article called “Advice for Beginning Writers” written by Steinbeck in 1963. Though he is discussing writing short stories, I think it’s safe to apply the advice to novels or other genres. You can read the whole article here.

Here’s my favourite section:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

In other words, if there is an impulse, honour it. And write. What you create might be good. But it might not.

That’s why it’s scary.

BlogFlannery“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

Flannery O’Connor

Years ago I read this quote from Flannery O’Connor, the great American short story writer. She wrote each morning and then tended to the peacock farm she lived on with her mother. Every day, she sat down at her desk and gave over those hours to writing. Sometimes she wrote nothing of substance; sometimes she wrote nothing at all. But because her mind learned this time was always going to be dedicated to writing, it began to trust and to flow. Most days, she was productive.

There are practical reasons to write daily:

  • you don’t have to re-read sections of your manuscript, which takes up valuable time;
  • your family and friends begin to respect your writing time because you do;
  • as soon as you sit down you’ll be in the flow, no need to struggle to regain your mental writing space;
  • your subconscious starts to kick in and then magic happens in your writing (e.g. a character you created will say things you didn’t expect and will begin take on a life of its own).

But ultimately if you write regularly, you are making a sacred deal with that creative source within you to be open, to receive.

I finished my novel in one year by writing about three hours, maybe four, every morning while my daughter was in nursery school. If I needed a push here and there I took longer, after making arrangements with my husband. But the average was three hours daily. And I rarely wrote on weekends.

We’re not talking life-altering commitment here. No need to quit your day job.

Flannery O’Connor gave just two hours a day.


Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi shows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso how to wax a car in the Karate Kid, 1984

Remember that scene in the Karate Kid (the original one) when Mr. Miyagi promises to give young Daniel karate lessons but ends up making him wax cars, in a very particular manner, until he is exhausted? (Click here to watch it.) What Daniel doesn’t know (until later) is that he is developing muscle memory and strength and actual skills for karate.

I wrote headlines for The Globe and Mail’s news section for about six years. I didn’t realize it at the time but the skills I was practising in writing headlines would, much like the young Karate Kid’s car-waxing lessons, serve me later when I wrote my novel. I’ll share them here because even if you never have occasion to write a headline in your life, they will help you write.

The thing about writing headlines for a daily newspaper is you have to do it, and fast. You can’t do your laundry first or make coffee or visit Twitter. Deadlines are firm and they keep coming.

This is how you write a good headline: Write down the first idea that comes to you. This is important: You must write it down. You must commit it to paper (or the screen). Just put it down, no matter how lame. And know this: that first idea will very likely be lame. This is important, too. The lameness will free you to create: You won’t be so in love with it that you will fail to see it’s flaws.

And then you fiddle and tweak, considering why this particular word is not quite right or that particular angle is off. And before you know it, you will have a good headline. It works. I promise. Not every headline created this way is brilliant. But every headline is workable.

It isn’t effective, at least it wasn’t effective for me, to play out this process in your head. You’d think it would be. Headlines are usually only about 5 to 8 words long. Why not just hold these words in your head? Because, as every non-enlightened human being knows, the mind cannot remain still. It keeps flitting and moving and floating and not settling on anything.

Imagine a potter trying to create something without first throwing down a slab of clay. Impossible, right? You need raw materials to create. For writers, the raw material are words.

When it comes to writing creatively, I follow this method. I did it with each line, each scene, each chapter of my novel until I finished it.

Do you want to write fiction but are having trouble getting going? Commit something to paper, a line or two or a page or two. Whatever is flowing. Examine why you think it’s bad. And then make it good.

Leap and the net will appear. The thing is, the net is always there.

It took me a very long time to learn this. I didn’t believe it was there while we were in Dar for that year or even when we returned home, safe, healthy, an almost-completed manuscript in hand. I know now it’s our awareness that’s the issue, not the existence of the net.

My husband secured a job flying a plane for some executives. It paid very little, which was expected. Low-hour pilots aren’t paid well anywhere, and Dar was no exception. But we were prepared to lose money in this venture. The point was to gain experience. So, we found an apartment and settled in.

Now, I could start writing.

I resisted. I had so much to do: get Mia into a school, figure out how to buy reasonably priced groceries, learn how to drive on the “other side” and in the chaotic traffic.

In about three weeks or so, we found a school for Mia and I learned to drive our rental car, though I kept turning on the wipers when I meant to hit the indicator. And more than once, while making a left turn I went into the wrong lane. But I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable in the chaos.

Still, I resisted writing. There was always so much to do.

My husband called me on it one night. “You have to just write,” he said. “There will always be something else to do.”

Simple, irrefutable logic.

Finally, one morning in June 2009, I sat at my new desk, purchased on the side of the road from a local African furniture-maker. It was still sticky with newly applied varnish.

I stared at a blank Word document and pictured my grandfather as a young man. He left his village of Malia, in Gujarat, when he was in his early 20s to make a go of it in East Africa. He went alone with very little money and no knowledge of where he was going. Having taken off the way we had, with no plan and with so much unknown before us, I suddenly felt a kinship with him. In my mind, he was not the old man dying of cancer that I recall from my childhood. He was tall and strong and aching for something. I had visited Malia about 14 years earlier. It was dusty and dry. I remembered pale sand. Like a beach with no sea. With those words, with those images, I started writing.

My husband and I kept a blog while we were in Dar from 2009 until early 2010. I’ve included some of blog posts from that time. The are categorized under Dar es Salaam and 2009.

Get in touch with Tasneem

For book club or media requests, please get in touch with Tasneem below.


Yay! Message sent.
Error! Please validate your fields.
© Copyright Tasneem Jamal