The damp, dewy beginning

I’m at the beginning of a new book.   This is probably my favorite part of writing—every possibility exists.  There is a freshness to the material, a scent of dew and dawn filling my work hours.  There is always the chance that this time I will have matured enough, learned enough, that I will be able to draw the material from the Land of Book Children with such care and expertise that it will be perfect.

That never happens, of course.  I love many of the books that have flowed through me, and feel a mother’s pride over every single of one of them.  But never once has one emerged on the page just as it exists on the other side of the veil.  I am only human, not an angel or a goddess.  I show up and do the best I can.

But right now, I haven’t yet marred this new book.  It’s still wet behind the ears, delicate and full of potential.  This stage of development is what makes non-writers think they could write books—they have a great idea, they have ideas for structure and originality, and it’s so much fun to think about the book project that a person can spend endless hours daydreaming about it.   It’s exciting to imagine turning points, discover the details of characters.  I love it when the girls in the basement send up a picture of something I know but would never have thought to use this way, like the gorgeous, solid houses built of red sandstone blocks in Pueblo.   There is a whole neighborhood with street after street of mansions built of this lovely material.   The girls said, “Hey, what about this?” and I realized it works perfectly.  The house, the neighborhood.

There are rituals for this process.   I like to start collecting a soundtrack.  The cornerstone piece for this soundtrack is Glitter in the Air, by Pink, because there is one line that captured me completely, and as sometimes will happen, a whole book reeled out from that starting point.   (No, I will not tell you which line it is, but maybe someday, I’ll bring this up again and someone will guess.)  I suspect there is some Adam Hurst again because I’m so crazy for cello right now and I like listening to his slow, melancholy strings while I write.   Maybe some Sarah McLachlan

I don’t have page counts to meet each day, but instead have time requirements. I have to be at the computer by 9, after a walk with the dog, and it is weirdly important not to get online or otherwise let the world in at this stage of development.  I need to be able to hear the soft voices of the novel.  The world is like static, interfering with my ability to tune in.

I like to write a dialogue between me and the main character.  It might sound silly, or a trick, and it is, in a way, but it also works.  I say hello, and I am glad to be working with you on this.  Let’s talk.  Tell me about……

And I give the character a chance to respond.  This is a surprisingly long standing ritual.  I started it years and years ago, and it nearly always gets my imagination moving.

I dream and play.  I write possible ideas for direction, play with character arcs.  To really start writing, I need a pretty clear idea of the shape of a novel, the basic themes and ideas I’m working with.  Most of what I will do in the first 100 pages will be more like building a skeleton than actual writing—I’m capturing motives and moods, planting stakes for support.   It’s all very plain and messy, with the odd flash of beauty.

It’s a delight to be in this stage.  Before anyone sees it, before things settle into solidity.

If you are a writer, do you like this stage, too?  If you are a reader, is there some part of your life that mirrors this sense of fresh starts?

23 thoughts on “The damp, dewy beginning


    Retiring was like for me. For a year before my last day I plotted and planned, using daydreams, excel spreadsheets, notes, the internet, talked about it to everyone I know…enjoyed the whole process.
    and now I am doing almost as planned with things being tweaked here and there. Retirement is my work in progress and I’m still loving evey day.


    and I forgot to add…lots of sticky notes…

  3. Cindy

    I can imagine the peacefulness 🙂 I am not a writer but a reader. There are times when I want to say or write something, and I have to mull it over for several days…I play with collections of words (they dance through my mind!) until they fall into place so the meaning I want to attach to them will come across.

  4. Shannon McKelden

    Oh, I WANT to feel this way about the beginning of the book! I’m at the beginning also…a book that will also, hopefully, be the beginning of a new agent relationship for me, and I’m trying not to feel anxious about it.

    This makes me want to change the way I feel about beginning a new book. So, I decide, right now, to start looking at the beginning as not a scary thing, not anxiety-inducing (Will I be able to pull this off?!) and look at it as a bright, shiny, creative toy I’ve been given to play with and discover the secrets of.

    I believe I’ll start with a talk with my main character. Great idea!

    Thanks, Barbara! I’m so glad I discovered your books and soooo glad I discovered this blog entry today!

    Shannon McKelden

  5. Mel

    The beginning is the fun part though I don’t do as much prep as you. I tend to get a first line and have to go write the first few scenes, then pull back and soundtrack and collage then keep on writing until I hit the gooey blurky middle bits : ) then comes more thinking.

    I love Glitter in The Air, it’s in my current wip soundtrack too! Mostly because of one line in it. I wonder if it’s the same line?

  6. The beginning is always my favorite part of the process. Like you, so many possibilities! My soundtrack tends to find me as I go. My current WIP has a lot of 60’s beach music. (I don’t know why, it’s a modern story.)

  7. Yes. Yes. YES! I adore starting new books. For all the reasons you mention. The newness, the endless possibilities! The as-yet-unmarred perfection.

    My beginning rituals involve buying nice, elegant notebooks, one for plotting notes and character journaling and another for the parts of the book I need to write longhand. And a new package of pens. And pouring through all my collection of collage pictures torn from magazines over the years to see if any call to me for the new book.

  8. Oh, my goodness, the beginning is WAY too scary for me. That’s where I flounder the most, because I don’t know anything. I love after the first (awful) draft is done, and I’m starting to finally know the characters, and I absolutely ADORE the day I get to start the second draft. That, to me, is play. I can do it for ten hours a day (whereas I can only write fresh stuff for 2-4 hours at a time — it just wrings so much from me).

    But I love hearing that other people love the beginnings. Your interview with your character method sounds great — I’ll have to try it.

  9. Beki

    I do love the beginning of a new book. While I’ve only finished one complete manuscript through revisions and then right on in to the deadly EIGHTH revision, I’ve started numerous books. The one I’m working on now clicked along like crazy in the beginning and now that I’m in the clunky mid-point, I’m happy to have all that earlier drafted material so I can go back and remember some of what I wrote for each person in that hazy, crazy blaze of what-a-great-idea gloriousness.

    That falling-in-love feeling at the beginning is what I think makes it possible to get through to the end. You know, based on the one time I accomplished said feat. 🙂

  10. Just reading your process is inspiriting, Barbara. Already I long for this book.

  11. Hi Barbara

    What a gorgeous blog post. Thank you so much. We all write so differently, but your way sounds fab!


    Jill Mansell

  12. This sounds so lovely, but it’s not like that for me. Starting a book is like plunging into freezing water – I hate it at the time but feel much better when I come out. It’s better after I’ve done the first chapter.

  13. Absolutely wonderful ‘in the bag’ article. My ‘new book’ stage also begins with a big fat fresh new notebook and super fine pens and lots of daydreaming. I’m there this week with book 6 and it’s a magical time – bettered only by the final full stop!

  14. I’m a Gemini – I love the freshness of new beginnings too! And thank you so much for the reference to Adam Hurst. I want to marry his cello and have 10,000 of its babies.

  15. I’m beginning a new book and the thoughts fill my dreams. I wake up, sit in front of the computer, and let the memories of last night flow. My go to music of late has been Gershwin. All about falling in love and being romantic.

  16. Me, too. I listen and listen and listen to Hurst and don’t get tired of it.

    Oh, now I have to email you, Mel and find out. How curious!

    New notebooks, Robyn. I love new notebooks and pens. And collaging. I have a new thick book of papers for my collages, so excited.

    Liz, do you have a ritual?

  17. I just finished my first novel and have already caught the scent of my next book. It reminds me of the way the scent of lilacs in the spring can stir up memories from my childhood. It happens without much help from me; actually in spite of me the inspiration comes. It’s like a “prompting” causing phrases, songs, shoes, donuts, broken teeth…anything, to stand out to me. I recognize the prompts and scribble all of them down in my little notebook, knowing that it is all a part of what will be. And then page by page the story moves forward with a rhythm of its own, and my heart rides along beating with the thrill of knowing that I am the god of the story, and I absolutely love it.

  18. Page Traynor

    Yes, pens and notebooks, colored typing paper. I am addicted to fabric and have a large magic stash that I search through finding the right pieces for each character. The material isn’t for clothes description but the essence of the person–almost an aura for each. Pictures of houses and rooms, sometimes out of period because it again it not literally a place but the place of the mind and heart. Later I look for clothes and rooms that are more materially part of the life.
    Looking through the book of perfumes…spices….flowers…I am so glad to be starting my book.

  19. I, too, start my soundtrack early. I’ll also just write to myself about the book – what draws me to the story – and sometimes that expands into ideas. But as a writer of historicals, the foundation of the beginning for me is reading history. Just in this stage on a new project and have ordered two, fat biographies to dive into.

  20. Ruthie


    Reading your blog brought back incredible memories of my senior year in college. As a music major, my final exam was to compose a piano concerto. Talk about daunting! The beginning was exciting. It’s new, ideas were flowing. And then the process became marred with too many ideas and paths. I remember struggling for hours, days, weeks. The final product? I liked it. Didn’t love it. Got a good grade.

  21. I love this post, thanks for sharing what the beginning is like for you.

    I’ve never started a full-length book but when I’m at the beginning of a new short story, I feel similar. I also have some similar routines, like getting the right music, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who has something of a relationship with my characters, as if they’re real people. 🙂 I should focus more on engaging in dialogue with them, that’s a good idea. I love the messiness of the beginning, too, it’s kind of the only time I can appreciate that before my perfectionism sets in.

  22. Okay, clearly I have to go look up Adam Hurst. The cello was the only instrument I ever played as a kid.

  23. I’m at the beginning of a book, too, Barbara, but I don’t love it. I prowl around the edges of it, like a cat eyeing the narrow rim around a pool, not willing to get my feet wet just yet…

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