Saturday, January 07, 2012

Writing Novels: Genesis

Hi folks, I thought I would take a few posts and discuss my novel writing process. First, the disclaimers, one, I've never had a published novel, and, two, my process is like chipping away at a marble with a firm belief that there is some great art in my mess of words. That said, I have written several novels and have learned a thing or two in the process.

It took me a while to write my first draft, about seven years all together. I did have four children in that time so that slowed me down some. The lack of a good idea slowed me down too. I started several novels, I'd get 30 or 40 pages in, and the whole thing would fizzle. I'd grow bored with the project; some other idea would come to me, and I'd find myself chasing the new idea. I found after a while that I kept circling around one idea -- human fragility, especially our minds. I finally got a draft together of a story that began as a picture book. The first idea of it came to me back in the late eighties.

I wrote character sketches of each of the main characters, and I also worked on creating a pile of unrelated what-if scenes about my novel idea. I created a complex timeline for the book. I drew maps. I also wrote a synopsis for each chapter. Then I began to work every day and over the course of about two years I created a solid draft. It was a such a feeling of power. I printed the whole thing in a paperback size and took it to the local printer and placed it in comb-binding. I can't tell you what euphoria I felt. I really had unrolled something that felt quite original up next to every other book I had ever seen. At least that what I felt.

I sent it out and immediately got some feedback that shocked me. The readers disliked my main character. They felt she was so negative, impossible to empathize with, I can tell you now that was a shattering blow, because I liked her, really, I loved her. Out came the box of tissues and a good messy cry ensued. Then I rolled my arm sleeves and worked some more.

Even though these professionals didn't care for her, I decided it must be my writing that was the problem. I loved her. I decided to try some different tactics to get others to see what I saw in this character. I also began to learn one of the most important "writing lessons." Novels dwell somewhere in our souls, and they must be teased and tricked out onto the page to truly come to life.

I went about that work. I wrote the whole novel in first person and then wrote it third person, trying to find a way to reveal my story so that everyone in the world could connect to it. After that, I sent it to a few publishers and was surprised this time when quite a number wrote back, expressing that I had many many good ideas but my story still lacked BIG TIME. There were paragraphs about my many problems, and I didn't have a clue how to fix the things that they were concerned about. So I just told them thank you for the advice, and, after curling up with a box of tissues and having another good cry fest, wrestled with the manuscript some more on my own, to see if I could shape my book into something viable.

How did I do this? I tore apart scenes and rewrote and rewrote them. I expanded side characters. I dug as far into imagery as I could. And I made that main character as honest as I knew how. My work paid off to a small degree. Folks began to like the main character, but they kept saying the book as a whole just failed to hold them, failed to make them love it. And finally, after showing at few more times and no one else really giving it a look, I shoved it to the back of the closet. Many call this trunking the manuscript.

My manuscript is still in the back of the closet, not forever though. This one, I believe deserves the light of day, but I need to be a more seasoned writer to take it on. Whenever I have a good idea about it -- I have had several, I pull it out and write some notes on it, I then I tuck it away. I put it away in hopes my novel skills will grow enough some day to do the book justice. I am still hopeful.

So what did I do then? I started another novel, the essense of novel genesis to me.

I hope that you keep wrestling with your art and don't give up.

Here is a pencil drawing I call "Piano in the Wilderness".

This week's quote is good advice.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. Ernest Hemingway


Vijaya said...

Well, I recognize Fractals in here, and I agree that it'll just get better and better as you grow as a writer. When I first read that book, I fell in love. I pray that the right editor falls in love.

My process -- well, I write those short stories when the writing of the novel becomes tough. You know me; I just turn my back. But I come back because they won't shut up. The characters live and breathe and demand my time. And so I give in. I am a very reluctant novelist. I wish I could write their stories in a thousand words.

I want to see your books -- both PBs and novels -- published. Here's to finding the right agent/editor who can see how amazing your work is.

Faith Pray said...

I knew we were kindreds! My first novel is a seven-year novel, too. I'm actually glad for the seven years, and for the first wave of rejections, funny thing. See, without those years I wouldn't know how little I know about writing! I wouldn't know my characters so well. And I wouldn't have known that I needed to rewrite the entire thing, which is what I'm doing now! Thanks for sharing this post. Excellent stuff. Your experiences and your words bring hope to the rest of us.

MollyMom103 said...

It is growing. Fractals is a magnum opus for me, so it's fine that it is taking time a long time. I'm going into the fabric of who we are there, deep into the power of love through flawed vessels, I think of them as the deep waters.

Well, novels can be written a thousand words at time. I'm glad you keep going back and giving into their demands. I hunger to see your novels.

Oh, Vijaya, we both need a stack of books -- pbs and novels. I'm praying for these things to come to us like the rain.

And Faith, we are certainly the most kindred of spirits. What a beautiful day, the day you have a book sitting on a shelf. I'm so glad I'm on this book creation journey with you. I'm glad my story is helping you keep working. We will find good success, I feel it in my bones!