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How to start a book: write the ending first.

By VYVYAN HOLLAND [Harper’s Bazaar via Anthony Howell Journal] — What is the urge that makes anyone want to write? Is it divine inspiration? Is it the desire for self-expression? I often feel it is merely a hankering after immortality. And yet a well-known author once confessed to me that the reason he wrote was because he admired his own handwriting so much that the mere tracing of the letters gave him a feeling of creation. It is a curious fact that authors have either extremely good or extremely bad handwriting. The worst hand-writing I ever came across was that of the late Professor George Saintsbury, who wrote so many good books on both English and French literature and, incident­ally, one of the best books on wine ever written, in his Notes from a Cellar Book. His hand-writing was so bad that no-one could read it, and he was eventually persuaded to buy an old typewriter and to learn how to use it. However, this did not really improve matters very much, because in the course of its vicissitudes the typewriter had lost its letter “E.” Nothing daunted, the Professor put an “x” wherever an “e” was needed, so that a word like “exceeding” started “xxcxx.”

It is a waste of time for the writer to sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and wait for an inspiration. A friend of mine with literary ambitions once started writing a book with no particular scheme in view. The book began as a philosophical treatise, but it gradually degenerated into an autobiography. As he could remember very little of his past life, he had to turn the autobiography into a novel. Because of lack of sufficient material, the novel shrank to a short story. I never heard what happened to it in the end.

Alec Waugh tells me that when he starts on a new book he sees it as a long and rather pleasant walk to a charming castle on a distant hill. The castle itself is quite clear and well-defined and he even knows how it is decorated inside. And, which is more, he knows whom he is going to meet there, usually some irresponsible and exotic female. He has no very precise idea of whom or what he is likely to meet on his journey and he very often has to turn back and start again; but the objective—the “castle”— remains the same.

This brings me to the point that it is not only essential to know how your book is going to end, but that it is, in my opinion, a very good thing to write the end of your book first, so that you can never run the risk of losing sight of your castle, but can press eagerly on towards it…

Continued at Anthony Howell Journal | More Chronicle & Notices.




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