Beginning a new book

I’ve pretty much finished work on my second book, which will be published later this year on October 1st, and I’ve begun writing my third.  As with my second book, the third is going to be something new and different from what I’ve previously written. I have the general idea of the story, and I’ve begun the research I’ll need to write it.  The beginning of a book is such an exciting time – for me, the most exciting time. Right now, this book could be any kind of book it wants to be.

A couple of years ago, author China Mieville wrote a brilliant essay in which he compared the mystery novel, and more specifically its resolution, to a collapse of quantum state vectors, wherein all the myriad suspects, and all the possible narrative explanations of the crime are “winnowed” down to one single truth.  Whereas before the detective pronounces whodunnit, all theories are possible, after the pronouncement, all theories collapse to a single reality and the perpetrator is exposed. This, Mieville explains, is why all mystery novels are inherently dissatisfying even when done right.

I’ve thought a lot about this idea, and for me, the same principle applies to all of my storytelling. When I begin to write a new book, the story seems impossibly and thrillingly immense to me.  Before I’ve started laying down the words, a story can be anything, and contain anything.  Because it hasn’t yet been written, the possibilities are endless. I don’t yet know which path my characters will take, nor even still the choices that will be presented to them. I won’t know any of that until I am there at the crossroads to observe it, when all the previous possibilities clear away like fog, and I’m left saying to myself, “so that’s what happens next.”

It’s rather difficult to explain. The simplest way to describe it is to say that when I begin a book, it is big.  So big it scares me. But as I write, and the words turn into sentences, and the sentences turn into pages, the book gets smaller. With each character, scene, and choice, the previous possibilities diminish. The characters and story assume a trajectory from which they can no longer deviate without violating their truth. This is exciting in its own way, this momentum, because it means the story has taken up its own life. But it is also disappointing to realize all the things the story will not, and can no longer be.

I don’t think I would experience this if I outlined. But I don’t, and so writing for me is an act of discovery. While that means I face an inevitable deflation when I stand at the end of a book and look back over it, there remains the quiet joy that comes from seeing something for what it is. And it has to be that way. Stories about everything are really about nothing, and offer no meaning, ask no questions, and provide little truth.  I don’t yet know what this new book will be, what surprises it holds for me, but I’m looking forward to finding out.


In other news, the Salt Lake Tribune did a short piece on me that you can read here.

And here are some links to a few more reviews of The Clockwork Three:

Mrs. Behnke’s Blog

Kiss the Book

The Star Phoenix

Yearning to Read

Teens Read Too

Pica Reads

UPDATE: One more review

YA Books and Reviews

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20 responses to “Beginning a new book”

  1. Dude, that is sort of a depressing way to look at a book. But I totally know what you mean!!

    It’s like Schrodinger’s cat. When the cat’s in the box, and nobody’s opened it, it could be alive, or dead, or partially dead, or puking, or dancing, or cross-dressing, or contemplating the meaning of life, the universe and everything, or anything. The possibilities are endless. So fun!

    But when you open the box, and the cat’s dead, that can be… deflating.

    So, after years of writing a book, all I have to show for it is a dead cat. How does anyone ever get published?

  2. That’s an interesting way to look at book genesis. It takes all the pressure off beginning a new book, since, if it doesn’t work when you try one direction, you can always send your story off in another. Nothing’s set in stone.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t outline, though I’ve been wondering if that’s the problem with my plots…

    • Well, not outlining does mean that I sometimes get myself into some tight spots that require rewriting, and juggling, and standing on my head. It’s a literary circus.

      But it works for me.

  3. Nice observations, Matt. And I’ve sensed that same process, with, of course, limited success.

    In some respects, however, it all makes as much sense to me as Ursula K. Le Guin, who said — as you possibly know — “The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” There’s an intangible I think Le Guin is referring to by using the oxymoron, but I’m not sure I know what the intangible is or even if that is what it is. Perhaps my problem, if I’ve even reached that point of craft, is saying in words only what can be said; I haven’t yet figured out how to do — or perhaps even to understand — what Ursula is saying. But I think a great story depends on the characters we pick and their history, too.

    Anyway, I look forward to the unfolding of new choices by Kirby characters.

  4. I’m so glad to hear of a successful writer who doesn’t outline. I kind of feel pressure to outline because so many people do and speak so highly of it, but when I’ve tried to do it formally, outside of a few, loose, guiding paragraphs, I just feel like I’m wasting time–time I could be writing the story!

    I seem to have to start writing and let the story guide me and shape itself. Good to know I’m not the only one…whew…Oh. BTW. I saw your book at my school’s book fair and was excited to see it “in person”! I wanted to take a pic of the kids checking it out, but my phone battery died. It looks great though. Congrats!

    • Yeah, outlining just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it, mostly out of the pressure you describe, but I have yet to actually stick to one.

      It’s been fun seeing my book in the Fairs. I work in the schools, so it’s a thrill to have kids come by my office to get their books signed.

  5. Love how you described it, Matthew. I don’t outline either, and it’s just as you say for me too. It does feel so BIG at the beginning.

    Sometimes I think we don’t take enough time to really appreciate how amazing it is that a story comes to the pages where before there was nothing there. Nothing! And then, something, and if we’re lucky, something special! Wow, so cool!

  6. **trumpets flourishing dramatically**
    **thwacks trumpet players aside with sharp elbows**
    Matt, I totally understand what you mean by saying that the book feels BIG at the beginning. I like how you explained it–wreddyornot summed it up quite well with that quote, I daresay. I have that, too. The only thing is… I haven’t gotten over it yet. Right now, I just make things up as I go along. You can’t believe how relieved I was when I realized you didn’t outline—now that I know success is possible without outlining….it feels simpler, if that makes any sense. I don’t think you should feel disappointed when it’s all done and over though because everything still worked out. Does this mean you like cliffhangers, with all the possibility dangling? And writing where the author leaves things to the reader’s imagination? Y’know, you could write one of those books where the reader can choose between various possibilities as they move along. Perhaps I’m completely missing your point…
    But I most eagerly await your next novel! Vikings, right? Or was that something else?

      • Excellent! lived in Hawaii? That’s…That’s totally awesome! Love your point about great endings—Hercule Poirot (by Agatha Christie) had a bunch. If you haven’t read his mysteries, I rather think you should. I would recommend Sherlock Holmes, too, but I have a feeling you might have already read some of his.

  7. Aloha! Big words, Matt. Big words. But I catch your drift. But, unlike everyone else, that’s my favorite part of the book. The part when BANG! you realize that it was Mrs. White with the knife in the Drawing Room. Because then it all falls into place and you lean back into your rocker and you think, “I knew that. No, I didn’t. What a good book.” And then you walk around giddy because you’ve just finished a book that went swimmingly. You know, on Pigfarts, they don’t even HAVE murders. Rumbleroar would eat up any offenders, and the noise of him chomping would awake his slumbering cubs. Professor McGonnagills wouldn’t like it much, either. The cubs enjoy trying to eat her.

    • Aloha! (Not often I get that greeting, but it feels so familiar, having lived in Hawaii.)

      The greatest endings are the ones that are surprising, yet also inevitable.

  8. Matthew, I am a HUGE fan of your first book (your writing, especially your descriptions are so poetic!) and can’t wait to gobble up the second! But, I thought “The Clockwork Three” was going to be a trilogy? I want more of that story! Do you have any future plans to write any sequels? I also can’t wait for the movie!

    • Thanks, Jen!

      The Clockwork Three is not a trilogy, although I do hope to write a sequel one day. My next book is something new and different, a Viking novel called Icefall. And the book I’m writing now is something new and different, again. But I hope you enjoy them, too. As for a movie, I’d love it if it happens!

  9. Hi!!! Matthew, I am such a huge fan of your novel, The Clockwork Three. I am currently on page 270 and I just cannot fathom about how spectacular it has come to! I love how at first Guiseppe had a chapter, then Frederick, then Hannah. Once I was a smidge past the middle of the book I would have to keep checking which person this was about, even though they were all together and intertwined in eachothers lives. I also adore your poetic way of writing. I always look back to your similes and metaphors and other figurative language. They are just so beautiful! It is so funny how whenever I end a chapter I think to myself about how this person is my favorite. Then, I read the next chapter and think the same thing! You have a great way of sucking people into your books! Keep writing, please!

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