I finished reading American Gods this week. It is such a complex novel with so many characters and short stories scattered throughout the book. It’s well-written and, I think, clearly shows the unique writing style of Neil Gaiman.
I’m left with the thought that I could never write something so unique and creative like this.
Then I remembered Gaiman’s description of the development of this story in an essay he wrote and included in his compilation of nonfiction.
The idea for the book didn’t come fully formed.
- 1997: Through a series of coincidences, a bodyguard and a magician end up sitting on a plane next to each other. The magician offers the bodyguard a job and he accepts.
- Early 1998: The magician was now called Wednesday and the bodyguard was called Ryder and they were in a short story about murders in a Midwestern town called Silverside.
- Mid 1998: Gaiman had a dream about a dead wife, so that would be added to the story, too.
- July 1998: On a stop in Iceland, Gaiman finally figured out what the book was about and wrote a letter to his publisher calling it tentatively, American Gods, but he still didn’t have much written.
- September 1998: Ryder was now called Ben Kobold and the town became a lakeside town Shelby (Lakeside sounded like a great name for the place) and he wrote ten pages, but then stopped.
- December 1998: Wrote chapter one.
- June 1999: Wrote chapter two.
- January 2001: Finished writing the book.
I find this development to be so reassuring.
I have ideas for novels–children’s books really.
The ideas all seem too big for me right now as a writer. I know they will be big and I don’t know how to get from idea to novel. It’s like trying to tame a wild beast and I don’t even know where to start.
But neither did a professional like Gaiman.
His unique novel started with a simple scene and then expanded from there. But he didn’t start writing the novel yet. He needed the idea to take shape and grow.
I don’t know any creators of fictions who start writing with nothing but a blank page. (They may exist. I just haven’t met any.) Mostly you have something. An image, or a character. And mostly you also have either a beginning, a middle or an end. Middles are good to have, because by the time you reach the middle you have a pretty good head of steam up; and ends are great. If you know how it ends, you can just start somewhere, aim, and begin to write (and, if you’re lucky, it may even end where you were hoping to go).
There may be writers who have beginnings, middles and ends before they sit down to write. I am rarely of their number.
So there I was, four years ago, with only a beginning. And you need more than a beginning if you’re going to start a book. If all you have is a beginning, then once you’ve written that beginning, you have nowhere to go.
“All Books Have Genders“