Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

Evolution of a Novel

I like to think of novel-writing as a long day’s journey into night. Sometimes the driver knows where he is going because he has carefully mapped every leg of the journey. Others proceed with the headlights on bright, letting the road unfold as they travel. Travelers are like that. Some have to have every hotel on the way booked in advance and every site they are going to stop at scheduled on an itinerary. Other travelers, perhaps with a knapsack on their back, just go, stopping at whatever place attracts their attention. Some like to travel in groups; others like to explore on their own. Novelists explore alone. The product of that solitary exploration is the novel.

The process in writing my current novel is different from the others I have attempted in the past. Usually, I have written long character sketches and plot summaries with a good idea of where the final destination lay. I write long speculative paragraphs, weighing alternative directions and analyzing theme and motivation for each chapter or section of the story. Because I do not have a clear denouement in mind or fixed end point in this particular novel, to my surprise, I am discovering that this method of operation does have its advantages as much as the carefully choreographed, fully planned novel. It’s rather like what a reader picking up the book and reading it for the first time may experience. The reader keeps reading because he does not know what will happen to the main character, but his curiosity is stirred sufficiently to continue turning the pages until the end. Similarly, I don’t know how, when, or where my main character will end up; yet I keep writing to find out what will happen to her, what impact she will finally have on the other characters, and how will she have grown. These are all questions that determine eventually what I want the reader to take away from following my character’s life.

Similar to my other attempts at novel-writing, I do have a main theme, purpose, or idea in mind at the core of all the choices I make about character, action, and setting. Theme is the guiding light of the writing process. The method of simultaneously learning, discovering, and experiencing moment to moment as my character does, is very liberating–maybe because it is such a dynamic process. Ultimately, it generates greater vitality in the creative process. I have a greater sense of writing as an adventure. I am a traveling writer inhabiting my fictional world. I am a fellow-traveler with the character; I am subject to the same thrill, expectancy, or trepidation about what she may encounter around the next bend. What lurks in the shadows? What comes into view when she makes the left turn or the right turn? I am making decisions at the same time the character does.

Writers develop a process that suits them. Some write slowly and meticulously, honing each sentence and paragraph until it is pitch-perfect before proceeding.  They write a few pages per day, and review the previous day’s writing before writing new material the next day. Doing it well the first time, they claim, makes their first draft essentially their only draft or nearly so, or at least reduces the need for major revision later. Others compulsively revise, discard, and rewrite, constantly adjusting and tuning, uncertain when the job is really done, doing multiple drafts.  Fledgling writers get conflicting advice in writing workshops. There is no lack of creative writing teachers who ascribe to one method or another and who offer lists of do’s and don’ts.  I have one of each variety: Don’t believe one successful writer’s way is your path to success. Do write your fool head off until you find a process that makes you happy and happy with the writing you have produced. I believe in the end we write for our own happiness. A byproduct of that process is being made happier when even one person finds the reading of your book a worthwhile, enjoyable experience.


First Steps in a Novel: My Method of Operation

Whether the seminal idea is a theme, character, setting or plot; before I actually write a first draft, I do a lot of preliminary writing.  I create a cast of characters who will  enact the events that I will unfold in the story. I write character sketches for each of them in which I describe their physical and personality traits.  I ascribe age, profession, family background, likes and dislikes, pastimes and other pertinent data to fully understand who the character is.  I summarize in a few pages the arc of the plot, the major conflicts and complications. This is a framework around which, as I write, additional or different directions may arise from my preliminary conception of the story.  I also write several pages that describe the setting. I want to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the objects in that environment.  The main theme or point of the story is central to the choices I make about the details of character, plot, and setting. I must know the point of my story, or why bother to write it?  If I can’t tell the reader why I wanted to write the story in the first place, they can’t decide if they want to read it.

Even after I am well into the first draft, I record possibilities for incidents, confrontations, and motivations in the novel.  The physical act of writing these mental meanderings helps to solidify my purpose and to decide what alternative will work the best.  I have pages of these musings for every book I’ve written. I may write out mini-scenes or sections of dialogue and then later work them into the novel at an appropriate point.

Do I know what my ending is when I start?  Not all the time. Some time it is only the general notion that it will be happy or tragic, that the main character will change or remain the same. If I have conceived a specific ending, it is open to modification or change as the story evolves.  Most novelists report that their characters take on a life of their own as the action progresses and what was not conceivable at first, becomes the logical outcome to a chain of events, consistent with that character’s previous behavior. That’s what makes writing so exciting, those turn of events, that surprise even the writer.

When the first draft is done, the work is just beginning.  There must be readers for that newborn babe, readers who are not bosom buddies apt to lie through their teeth how great the novel is, when you know there are dung piles smothering the solitary wild rose scattered here and there in the manuscript.  There’s an Arab saying: “The monkey’s mother thinks he’s beautiful.” That adage serves to remind me  my brain child is ugly at this stage. I have an ugly duckling that with the help of several perceptive, objective and critical readers, I could turn into a graceful swan.  When I first started writing, I hated the revision stage–ugh–too much work. But now I like digging in the dirt like an avid gardener, pulling weeds left and right, so those flowers have room to grow.  But we can leave the topic of revision for another time.

Readers, please tell me about your method of operation in your creative activity.  I would love to hear about them.