Don’t write the book – Allegra Huston

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By Allegra Huston

The first time I sat down to write a book – which became Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found – I thought I was supposed to start at the beginning, because that’s where books start. Some writers do too. But, as I learned the hard way, many don’t.♥

When I sat down on day one, I realized I didn’t know where the beginning was. It seems obvious now, in retrospect: Love Child begins with four-year-old me being told that my mother has been killed in a car crash. But I wanted to tell my mother’s story, too, as well as the story of me discovering it; and I had to tell the details of how I came to be. So my other possible beginnings ranged across seventy years of chronological time.

I read English at university, so I know how important first sentences are. And I couldn’t write a decent one to save my life.

Even though I’d been an editor for twenty years, I knew very little about the process of writing. I knew how to make something that already existed better; but I’d never before tried to bring something out of nothing. OK, I thought, editing is my comfort zone: I just need to give myself something to edit. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. As long as it exists, I can fix it up. So I started writing somewhere that couldn’t possibly be the beginning. I jumped about in the story, writing up episodes in no particular order, telling myself I’d just get it all down on paper and worry about it later. It worked. After a few months, I had about 300 pages of material.

But not the beginning. And when I went back to those early years and the few memories I had of my mother, my memory started playing tricks on me. I remembered her car being red, but my godmother told me it was blue. I remembered looking out a window and seeing the car to the left; then it jumped over to the right. At this point, I very nearly quit. But if I did, I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I felt; I’d be letting my mother down. In frustration, I told myself, “If I can’t write what I remember, I’ll just have to write what I don’t remember.” If nothing else, it would keep me in the chair. To my surprise, what I wrote that day ended up in the final version of Love Child, more lightly edited than almost anything else.

I use this as an exercise now in writing classes: think of an event that was important to you and write for ten minutes, starting with the words, “I don’t remember …” Absolutely without fail, my students write something extraordinary. I use ten-minute exercises in my own work too. I love them because they stop you worrying about writing something good. You might write something good in twenty minutes, but surely not in ten! You have no time to think; you write off the top of your head. Usually, you surprise yourself. And if (as rarely happens) there’s nothing sparking in there, you’ve only lost ten minutes.

The further away I can get from thinking that what I’m writing is supposed to be good, the more authentic and alive it gets. First drafts aren’t supposed to be good; that’s why they’re called first drafts. But to me, even “draft” sounds too coherent, so I still call my first bits of writing “material.” When I start putting it in order, it becomes a “rough draft.” By the time I’ve reached “first draft,” I know what’s working and what isn’t. For what isn’t, I go back to my notebook and generate more material.

When I came to write my first novel, Say My Name, I found it was even harder to know where to start. So, after plotting out the story on index cards, I fell back on the approach that had worked for me before. There were a few sex scenes that I knew I’d have in the book, so I started with those. Every day I wrote for an hour, and if I didn’t know what to write within the story I’d plotted out, I wrote randomly: the headache I woke up with that morning, a memory of a man who kissed like a camel, a description of the only man I’ve ever thought looked sexy playing the violin, a rant about why I hate bouquets of roses. (You can find all of those in Say My Name.) These pieces, generated out of my own immediate reality rather than out of the plot I’d imagined, found their way into my characters and gave them a dimensionality that I wasn’t skilled enough to give them otherwise. And when Eve, Micajah, and Bethany came alive, they took the story far beyond what I’d imagined: to darker, more passionate, and more ecstatic places than my rational mind had been able to think up on its own.

Sometimes it’s better not to know exactly what words you’re going to put down, what turns the story should take or what it should mean. So if you don’t remember something you want to write about, write what you don’t remember; and if you don’t like what you write when you’re writing the book, just generate material. (You don’t even have to be “writing.”) Put your internal critic away for the time being, and surprise yourself. That’s where the energy comes from.

Allegra Huston has written screenplays, journalism, and one previous book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (2009). After an early career in UK publishing, including four years as Editorial Director of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, she joined the film company Pathé as development consultant. She wrote and produced the award-winning short film Good Luck, Mr. Gorski (2011), and is on the editorial staff of the international art and culture magazine Garage. She lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her fourteen-year-old son. Say My Name by Allegra Huston is published by HQ on July 27. Allegra will be teaching a memoir writing workshop in Mallorca October 22–27: details at


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