Writing that first novel: the way to hunt

By Ellen McQueen

Hemingway writes in Green Hills of Africa,

“The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal, just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.”

I finished writing my first novel in October at the Four Seasons in Cairo in a restaurant with white tablecloths whose windows overlooked the river. I’d started the thing in June, at a hotel called Meliá De Mar in Mallorca on the edge of the sea overlooking the Mediterranean. Those first few pages came slow, but I believed in it and on the horizon white sailboats rocked and below blue waves broke against the stone cliffs. I remember writing for an hour and thinking I was somehow a genius and the next day, going back to it ,this time in the garden of Castell Son Claret, (a castle turned hotel in the Mallorca mountains) rereading it and hating it and scrapping it. Five or six pages I couldn’t stand to look at, so while my boyfriend slept I deleted them then walked through lines of olive trees and calculated the strategy for a second start.

Writing is hunting. The hunt for the right verbs, the right metaphors, the right dialogue. The most compelling characters. The most intriguing settings. Inspiration too often runs dry so that days go by sitting in front of a blank page, waiting for the rainy season, hoping my God today is the day something will start flowing. Hours of slinking around whichever city you are in, eavesdropping and staring and eyeballing every potential member of your potential audience, clutching at the smoke of focus that slips through sweating fingers to be replaced by self-doubt and judgement and comparison. Armed and ready with a pen jotting down stray thoughts that could be the answer to everything but the next day turn out to be nothing, again, just words scrawled on a napkin after too many drinks at the airport bar. And for all this failure you do not give up on the hunt because you know prey is right around the corner, you know there’s a prize if you just keep fighting for it and you keep fighting for it because it’s the only thing that is worth doing. That you can think to do. That capitalizes on all your thoughts. The hunter obsessed. The refusal to go home empty-handed.

September was a full-on sprint, arrow in my hand and I could see the thing escaping but I could also see it struck down, because I knew it was what I had to do to survive or succeed or whatever, and every stumble and every missed shot was torture, I was better than that, I knew I had to be.

The Isa Begov hotel in Sarajevo alone at breakfast in front of the Word document staring out the small stone window at the thin white tower of a mosque thinking only of Marrakech and the concentration pills in my Brooklyn apartment.

The bar of the Saint James Paris we had dinner the night and I thought of something somehow good after a bottle of white wine. I returned in the morning but there was nothing left except a hangover and my conscience urging me to get one damn word on that page because you’re better than this.

A moment of luck at Charles de Gaulle waiting for news of our Egypt Air flight that was cancelled and rescheduled for a few days later, and on that flight too I had some luck, the arrow was shot and would tremble through the air for six days as I gathered the last verbs and metaphors and bits of dialogue, and a few hours before it collided with the last period of the last sentence of the last page I watched from the window of the Four Seasons as a small boat carrying three men capsized into the Nile. It distracted me for a while, the last distraction I allowed myself, as the men bobbed in the water until a tug boat chugged along to their aid, and another man reached his arm down to pull each of them up, their clothes drenched in the filth of the river, the sun beating a hundred and twenty degrees onto their skin. The tug boat chug chug chugged away, and the wooden boat was left drifting, its contents (too far for me to make out) floating around it, bobbing up and down as boats of all shapes and sizes added pollution to the muddied and massive and historic body of water. And once the tug boat and its men were out of sight I returned to my book, my book, my prey, the thing that by now I hated and loved, and worked another hour, and finished it. I looked up again at the river, at my boyfriend working next to me, at the tourists eating at the tables around me (potential members of a potential audience). There was a relief in it and a heavy satisfaction that settles when a secret from your own garden blossoms. I stood and said nothing to my boyfriend and found a bar in the hotel—it was called a reading bar and I’d found that hilarious, everything had become hilarious—and I ordered a whiskey from the bartender. I told him I just finished writing a book but the language barrier was too much and he thought I’d said I just finished reading a book and I was glad actually I still had my secret. The hunt was far from over, of course, as one’s pursuit for writing is never over, but I had two hundred and twenty consecutive pages of a story I’d thought of myself and after the first whiskey and halfway through the second that felt really damn good.


Ben Gun / flickr / creative commons license

There is always failure in writing, but you cannot not try it because of the thrill of the chase and the fulfillment of the hunt. If you want to write you must write. As Hemingway says,

“Every damned thing is your fault if you’re any good. I thought I could shoot a shot-gun better than I could and I had lost plenty of money backing my opinion but I knew, coldly and outside myself, that I could shoot a rifle on game as well as any son of a bitch that ever lived. Like hell I could. So what? So I gut-shot a sable bull and let him get away. Could I shoot as well as I thought I could? Sure. Then why did I miss on that cow? Hell, everybody is off sometime. You’ve got no bloody business to be off. Who the hell are you? My conscience? Listen, I’m all right with my conscience. I know just what kind of a son of a bitch I am and I know what I can do well.”


 Ellen McQueen is a graduate of New York University where she studied English Literature and Creative Writing. She is currently living in Paris and working on a novel that will incorporate her love of travel.

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