A Novel Approach

Writing a novel is work; no news there. But it helps to gain perspective from other writers. I was feeling stuck about the plot line for my work in progress, hiking up a steep slope with no idea how to reach the summit. Not a good idea for a Coloradan. So, in desperation I checked out a how-to book from my wonderful Anythink Library–my walking stick, my water bottle, my sturdy backpack, most of what a writer needs when she’s on a long walkabout.

Reading James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure has set my feet (and my fingers) on the right path. It took a while, as I tiptoed my way through the three-act structure that has become important to novelists. Finally I focused on a page suggesting that the end, the blessed, welcome peak, might be reached in such a way that the lead character does not get what she wants but the result is still positive. Combine this with Bell’s advice to up the tension between the lead and the antagonist—voila! A vista to behold on a sunny day.

I have yet to write the scene, but driving to an appointment Friday morning, I decided on the exact setting for the decisive scene. And I’ve identified more clearly the two opposing characters who will make the scene memorable—I hope. So, my work can resume. I’ll go ahead and do all the little edits that I’ve scribbled into the “Yellow” copy (I print on colored paper until I’m pretty close to done.) And then add that all important scene before hitting save. Oddly enough, I already have the final sentence. Just have to hike that hill to where I can declare the first full version done, let it stew a while and then dig in for the final run.

Writing by Recipe?

Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.

Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.

Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!

I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.

If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.

Stagecraft in Fiction & Memoir

Immersed in writing a fourth novel, I’m thinking about the overlap between live theater and the narrative forms of fiction and memoir. Theater has the advantage of the visual set, no need for description of the place or the characters.There they are, well lighted, voices projected to the upper gallery, free to move in meaningful ways.

However, (You knew there was a turn coming, didn’t you?) the written narrative has the advantage of taking us inside the character. Those internal monologues are useful to the reader who cares about things like motivation and impulse control, etc. No need for squishy dialogue between characters to enlighten us.

I read up about directing in theater, a role somewhat like that of the author, who must create a workable story from the following bits and pieces:

Casting: appearance, attitudes, demographics, fear, love, etc. All named and every single one necessary to the story.

Blocking: entrances, exits, proximity to other characters or to important props. I fret if a character is standing idle while others talk. I tend to send them off stage, go get lunch or use the bathroom. Just don’t hang around while others discuss the murder suspect.

Set: too much is too much; in fiction it leads to description overkill; think interior scene or exterior; lighting; noises off stage.

Props: every item has meaning; Chekov’s famous dictum says a gun that appears in Act One must be fired in Act Three. I’m probably going to ignore this, because there is a gun that must not go off in my story.

Dialogue: concise, meaningful, not an info dump telling the reader by means of cross talk, and the wonderful option of interior monologue: She thought, I should not have gone down those cellar stairs.

Time frames: stage time, aka, elapsed time in the story, vs audience time. How long will theater patrons sit? How many hours will a reader devote to the book?

Action: meaningful (see dialogue, speaking is action), reveals emotion, includes posture, voice modulation, facial expression in addition to the punching, the stabbing, the driving while angry.

Tension: rising action, interaction between characters as well as between text and the reader: often a result of resistance, suffering.

I’ve written exactly one play and vowed never to do it again. Once the script was in the hands of the director and out of my hands, I felt like I had abandoned a child in the train station, and it was going on a long journey without me. But story is story and has its place on stage or between the covers of a book. Think about it.

I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

Endings and Bananas

In the Sept/Oct 1917 issue of Poets & Writers, Joyce Maynard, in her essay “Patience and Memoir,” writes that for years she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs, in which she always felt the need to find “some kind of conclusion” even if there was none. I see that as one of my issues, the desire to tidy up the mess, leave the reader satisfied, provide dessert after a nourishing meal.

Endings challenge me. Right now, as I type this blog, I am avoiding a needed revision for a novel that ends, as mine often do, abruptly. Why truncate a story after laboring to deliver it fully formed? For one thing, I fear boring the reader, not taking up more of their precious time. Well, that’s not a healthy attitude. And better folk than I have said in various ways to “Stay in the room,” (Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days); BICHOK–butt in chair, hands on keyboard (Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Writers Workshop); “Write beyond the last line” (Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, poet). My own four-word mantra begins with Commit (and includes Discover, Create, Connect). So I’ve committed to a fuller ending for that novel, despite my insecurities.

Writing is like marriage or parenthood. Some days you need to buy bananas but you long to drive past the supermarket, just keep going till the gas gauge hits E. But you don’t. You stop for coffee or a walk in the park. You clean up the mess on the page and bandage your aching ego. And by you, I mean me too.

Writer as Architect

While other little girls were jumping rope or playing with paper dolls, I was drawing house plans. My grandfather was, among other things, a building inspector, and I happily tagged along while he inspected new construction in our small town. If I had been born later in the century, I might have said that I wanted to be an architect, but no one took my interest seriously and I was left to choose between teaching English or nursing. I’ve done both, but deep down I still long to wrestle with big designs. The closest I have ever come to real architecture was to write a newspaper article about Buckminster Fuller, my secret hero. I am fascinated by the tiny-house movement. I live in an apartment of my own design.

Now there is the architecture of a novel challenging me. I have to provide a living structure for my characters, not just a house but several and a city to contain them. My people need roads, offices, and houses with kitchens and bedrooms and good plumbing. They need furniture, doors and windows. They need everything. I’m doing architecture on a grand scale, what would be a planned community if I weren’t dealing with the city of Providence, RI. It’s already there and I have to fit my creations into what exists. Grandad never had such a challenge.

Beyond the world building, I’m wrestling with the structure of the novel itself. What comes first, next, last? Does the story have a strong foundation and enough space to move around in? Will the finish work complement the framing and will the walls hold out the weather? The greatest and worst part of this design is that I’m the only one doing the work. I’m metaphorically hanging sheetrock and painting trim. I can only hope that when I’m done and the “For Sale” sign goes up, someone will buy it.

How Do I Revise?

I’m not sure anymore what revise means, but what I am doing with the novel ms is rewriting. Yes, I am retyping every chapter, sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. In this time of cut/copy/paste, people often look at me as if I were hopelessly stupid. But this is actually my third pass at  the ms. My first drafts are handwritten, then typed and printed, then retyped and printed. Close attention at every stage lets me see changes that make for a better book. Typing a sentence gives me a chance to be sure I’ve not left those cursed dangling/misplaced modifiers, used exactly the right word to convey the image that brings the story to life, and gives readers the clues they need to stay inside the story. A novel is a world in which a reader resides, if the writer quiets the outer world of distractions, gives no excuse to leave the scene of the crime or the next big thing that develops character and storyline. Once we are buckled into the rollercoaster and the ride starts, no one gets off if I’ve done my work well.

As I write this, I’m about 15% done with the rewrite. Chapters are not yet numbered because I’m holding my options open as to what follows what. (Each tentative chapter has a slug line/title that cues me as to its content.) I have three main characters and I want the reader engaged with each one for a significant amount of time. If the POV changes too quickly, it’s like a series of little climbs and drops on that rollercoaster. I prefer a pretty long ascent before we drop and start to climb again. As I see it, when I rework the ms for the fourth time, I’ll decide on the structure and then send it off to those sainted beta readers before it ever gets to the professional editor. I want to present the best ms I can so that any advice I get is meaningful. It’s work, yes, but it’s satisfying work. My process does not work for everyone, but after years of writing and teaching, I can say it’s a viable way to approach creative writing.