I already knew this – he told me, a few years back – but it still baffles and fascinates me. From a long and interesting interview with The Paris Review:
How do you begin a novel?
I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.
You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?
No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.
E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m in the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why the story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.
Partly, it fascinates because it’s alien to how I’ve worked for the last fifteen or twenty years. In comics, we’re working in serial form and very rarely have the luxury of finishing the entire manuscript before it begins publication. So one has to have a structure before the writing begins, because we can’t go back and tweak something in chapter 1 due to having had some story-changing bright idea in chapter 10, because chapter 1 probably saw print seven months ago and you’re still wanting the thing to hang together as a coherent whole in a collection. Which is a terrible thing, really, but endemic to the commercial form. Even FREAKANGELS, which I began with no real long-term plan at all, had a structure roughed out for the first 144 pages or so. But even the bunch of notes and lists I had for FREAKANGELS at the start turns out to be more than Bill has when he sits down to write a novel. When he began SPOOK COUNTRY, he had nothing more than a single interesting image in his head.
It’s a horrifying, intimidating way to work, and I want to try it one day.