“So. How do you start writing a novel?”

After some mysterious hinting at something Really Important that we needed to talk about, he pulled me aside to ask a question in complete privacy. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I sat down to listen to whatever problem he might have. Instead, I was supposed to start talking.

“So. How do you start writing a novel?”

“Erm,” I said. “You… sit down and start writing.” That’s probably the only answer there is, although some people are ready to sell you a hundred types of snake oil if they hear you asking.

“No, I mean, what are the rules? There’s something, right, you need to start with the introduction, then…”

Oh, hell, I thought, not another victim of the school system. Because this is what school taught me and everyone in my generation: a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. You set things up in the beginning, you continue them in the middle and then you have the end, where everything is resolved. Normally this works for essays, but this is how they teach you to write, too: start by introducing the characters and settings. Make them act. Explain what they’ve learned and how far they’ve come.

“You don’t need to start like that,” I said.

“Oh, do I need to describe who the character is first, in detail?”

“Not necessarily. You can tell the reader all about a character, or you can throw him in a scene and that’s that.” In medias res, I think to myself, but I don’t say it out loud because it would sound like a Thing and he was looking for rules, so he’d think it was necessary to do the inmediazrez thing he’d heard about.

“But what do I need to do?” he asked. And he started answering his own question, coming up with crazy rules that some people must have invented, but which you don’t need to follow to write anything. He asked me questions about what he could do and what he couldn’t do – could he be funny? Could he use swear words? Could he talk about… you know… sex? (this is a grown man we’re talking about, not a blushing teen) Time and again, I said pretty much anything works. Comedy works. Ranting works. Many things work. You just need to know whether they work in context.

“Does the book need to have a table of contents?” he asked. I swear to God: he asked me about the necessity of a table of contents, which is the one thing I never bothered giving a second thought to.

“Do you mean, does it need to have chapters?”

“No, a table of contents.”

“If you have chapters,” I said, “then a table of contents is good. It allows the reader to find what he’s looking for more easily.”

“Hm,” he said. “Can I write short stories instead of a novel?”

“Of course,” I answered. “Why couldn’t you?”

“But could they all revolve around the same thing?”

“As in, have a theme? Sure.”

“So, how long does a book need to be?”

Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. This is enough! “Listen, what are the last books you’ve read?”

“Well,” he said, switching to the defensive, “well, I haven’t had the time, see? But it’s not like I don’t know things, I mean, I know a lot of people and I take my dose of cultural savvy from sites like…”

And he showed me a few things on his tablet. They were pretty, full of pictures.

“I didn’t ask you this question because I think you’re simpleton,” I answered, “but because you’re asking me questions which you’d know the answer to if you read a few books. You could see what’s being done there and you’d understand.”

“I figured it would be something like that,” he said, looking like a kicked puppy. “But I want to write a book! I have so many things to say and I have no idea where to start. I mean, I can’t just sit down and write, can I?”

“Actually,” I said, “that’s exactly how it works. You sit down, you type, you see what happens. The thing about writing novels is that you have to write them.”

“Yes,” he said. “You write, and then you see what happens and you understand what-”

“No,” I interrupted him. “You just have to write them. You have to sit down with your keyboard – or with a pen, I guess, but I haven’t seen anyone with a pen – and you write. If you want, you can read a lot of books about writing, but they aren’t actually explaining how to write, they’re answering your questions because that’s how they get sold. It doesn’t mean the answers are worth anything, but they’ll give you what you want. They’ll give you rules and guidelines and a thousand things you don’t really need because you’re asking for them. The truth is simpler and more horrible: you need to write in order to have written and you need to figure out for yourself what you want to do and how you want to do it. Then someone else can come and give you pointers about how to do it better, but there are no set rules, no things you must do in every case. You need to decide.”

“Well, I’ll do it later, it’s not on my list of priorities right now,” he told me. “How about I contact you when I get writing, in a few months, then…”

And I shrugged, and I said “Yeah, sure,” and somehow I get the feeling that a few months from now he still won’t have written a word, but he’ll be asking me general questions again. Or worse, he’ll tell me all about the writing rules he’s been reading about in the mean time.

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