This essay, by author Neil Gaiman (Coraline, The Graveyard Book, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere and much more), originally appeared on his site some years ago. It offers fascinating insight into his creative process, which may help you with your own creative struggles.
Note that links have been added, and open in pop-up windows so that looking at the books being referenced will not close this window.
Books have sexes; or to be more precise, books have genders. They do in my head, anyway. Or at least, the ones that I write do. And these are genders that have something, but not everything, to do with the gender of the main character of the story.
When I wrote the ten volumes of Sandman, I tended to alternate between what I thought of as male storylines, such as the first story, collected under the title Preludes and Nocturnes, or the fourth book, Season of Mists; and more female stories, like Game of You, or Brief Lives.
The novels are a slightly different matter. Neverwhere is a Boy’s Own Adventure (Narnia on the Northern Line, as someone once described it), with an everyman hero, and the women in it tended to occupy equally stock roles, such as the Dreadful Fiancee, the Princess in Peril, the Kick-Ass Female Warrior, the Seductive Vamp. Each role is, I hope, taken and twisted 45% from skew, but they are stock characters nonetheless.
Stardust, on the other hand, is a girl’s book, even though it also has an everyman hero, young Tristran Thorne, not to mention seven Lords bent on assassinating each other. That may partly be because once Yvaine came on stage, she rapidly became the most interesting thing there, and it may also be because the relationships between the women – the Witch Queen, Yvaine, Victoria Forester, the Lady Una and even Ditchwater Sal, were so much more complex and shaded than the relationships (what there was of them) between the boys.
The first thing I knew when I started American Gods – even before I started it – was that I was finished with C.S. Lewis’s dictum that to write about how odd things affect odd people was an oddity too much, and that Gulliver’s Travels worked because Gulliver was normal, just as Alice in Wonderland would not have worked if Alice had been an extraordinary girl (which, now I come to think of it, is an odd thing to say, because if there’s one strange character in literature, it’s Alice). In Sandman I’d enjoyed writing about people who belonged in places on the other side of the looking glass, from the Dreamlord himself to such skewed luminaries as the Emperor of the United States.
Not, I should say, that I had much say in what American Gods was going to be. It had its own opinions.
American Gods began long before I knew I was going to be writing a novel called American Gods. It began in May 1997, with an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. I’d find myself thinking about it at night in bed before I’d go to sleep, as if I were watching a movie clip in my head. Each night I’d see another couple of minutes of the story.
In June 1997, I wrote the following on my battered Atari palmtop:
A guy winds up as a bodyguard for a magician. The magician is an over-the-top type. He offers the guy the job meeting him on a plane – sitting next to him.
Chain of events to get there involving missed flights, cancellations, unexpected bounce up to first class, and the guy sitting next to him introduces himself and offers him a job.
His life has just fallen apart anyway. He says yes.
Which is pretty much the beginning of the book. And all I knew at the time was it was the beginning of something. I hadn’t a clue what kind of something. Movie? TV series? Short story?
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.
A year later, I had a story in my head about these people. I tried writing it: the character I’d thought of as a magician (although, I had already decided, he wasn’t a magician at all) now seemed to be called Wednesday. I wasn’t sure what the other guy’s name was, the bodyguard, so I called him Ryder, but that wasn’t quite right. I had a short story in mind about those two and some murders that occur in a small Midwestern town called Silverside. I wrote a page and gave up, mainly because they really didn’t seem to come the town together.
There was a dream I woke up from, somewhere back then, sweating and confused, about a dead wife. It seemed to belong to the story, and I filed it away.
Some months later, in September 1998, I tried writing that story again, as a first person narrative, sending the guy I’d called Ryder (who I tried calling Ben Kobold this time, but that sent out quite the wrong set of signals) to the town (which I’d called Shelby, because Silverside seemed too exotic) on his own. I covered about ten pages, and then stopped. I still wasn’t comfortable with it.
By that point, I was coming to the conclusion that the story I wanted to tell in that particular little lakeside town … hmm, I thought somewhere in there, Lakeside, that’s what it’s called, a solid, generic name for a town … was too much a part of the novel to be written in isolation from it. And I had a novel by then. I’d had it for several months.