The trials and tribulations of writing a novel. Part 1: Orgasm


The tedium of waiting for inspiration


Writing a novel is fun—though only in the sense that making a baby is “fun”.

Ideally, it starts with a blissful eureka moment for a story idea (orgasm), which over the following days solidifies into the vague outline of a plot (conception). Then it’s months or years of writing and re-writing (gestation), and towards the end you want to kill yourself because it feels like you’ll never get it out there (labour), until finally you do (birth)—at which point you hopefully don’t suffer from post-partum depression and think your book-shaped offspring belongs in the rubbish bin.

The truth is I’ve never been pregnant, so I’ve no fucking idea if this analogy is even remotely worthwhile the 82 words I’ve just made you read.

Nevertheless, I’m going to tell you about the “orgasm” phase of writing The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour (which I now wish I had given a shorter title because it’s starting to get really annoying to type The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour all the time). Aspiring writers may find may take on this to be useful.

(First, a warning: though I have only written one novel, I am about to speak as though I have the experience of having written a dozen. I like to think it’s humble when you admit your arrogance upfront.)

Here is a quote that equally applies to writing:

“All art is theft” — Picasso

Like a compulsive shoplifter grabbing an item or two from each store they visit, a good writer steals bits and pieces of every story they read. These are to be kept in mind, residing without recollection until the day they are called up (seemingly out of nowhere) to help finish a sentence or give a new twist to a plot. But sometimes it’s more than just that.

At the risk of sounding like some pseudo-neuroscientist as well, I think that if a certain threshold of these hoarded, stolen literary ingredients is passed, the brain can hit you unawares with a story idea that at least has the facade of true originality—a eureka moment that all writers crave.

But how do you go about triggering that moment?

One way is to read a gazillion books. And I’d highly recommend that. But even then you may find that no muse has bothered whispering anything worth a raised eyebrow. In which case, there’s another way. It’s not an alternative to reading a gazillion book. But let’s call it “complementary”.

In the case of getting the idea for The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour, my own eureka moment happened while I was listening to an audiobook about the history of science fiction.

It was an eight hour series of lectures by the ceaselessly engrossing Professor Michael Drout that basically highlighted and summarized key books across the history of the genre, looking at their plots, characters and themes.

I hadn’t read most of these books at the time, but I felt like I’d intimately known them by the end of the audiobook—yet not so much that I got lost in the details of their prose. I knew them only at a distanced, macro level, and I think that this is the ideal place from which to perceive things if you want your subconscious to cut and paste a great many literary ingredients into a unique whole.

And that, I presume, is precisely what happened: before reaching the end of that audiobook while driving through Cairo in May 2010, I clapped a single loud clap of euphoria when the idea for my novel hit me like an orgasm seemingly out of nowhere (which, I should warn you, is dangerous when you are driving).

I think a key factor here is the compressed time span in which I became familiar with a multitude of different plots and characters. During the few days it took me to listen to the lectures, my brain was so immersed in numerous story lines, themes and motifs that it could process them together as a whole, making the subconscious act of coalescing it all into something seemingly novel all that more likely.

The alternative—reading all these particular books one at a time—would have been necessary in regards to developing an appreciation for their actual prose. But that would have taken months, if not years, a time span over which I think your brain is less likely to be able to “put it all together” in a moment of explosive inspiration.

The conclusion from all this? If you have read countless books but have yet to stumble on a great story idea, consider reading or listening to a book that is about other books, like the history of a certain genre you enjoy. Obviously, you would ideally then also read these books themselves.

Ultimately, writing a hundred thousand or so words is going to entail a number of other, smaller eureka moments. One of those should ideally be reserved for a story’s first sentence. Unfortunately, that is something that can involve staring for long periods of time at a word processor’s blinking cursor. But this is part of the “gestation” phase (yes, I am sticking to this analogy), and I’ll get back to in a future post.

Twitter: @hzilmi