Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to Start Writing a Novel

You might be wondering, how does someone write a novel? Not everyone does it the same way, of course. There are plotters and pantsers. I am a plotter. (Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants and just let it flow). I do a little of that too as I am actually creating. Sometimes things happen or characters arrive that I had no idea were coming. But, I thought it might be interesting to share the process I am about to embark upon, as I gear up to write book #2. Whether you are a writer or a reader, either way, I think it is interesting know how a particular writer does the deed.

Step 1 - read what I have.

I have already written a beginning, but I wrote it a year ago and I will most likely change elements, as the story has evolved in my head over time. So, first I will read what I have and see what I still like.

Step 2 - go over notes.

I also have written pages of notes already – again over the last year. I have a character list, and a rough plot outline, at least where I thought it was going then. So again, I will read them and see what I still like and refresh my memory.

Step 3 – write more notes.

I will revision my plan and come up with a working outline. I write my outline in the computer, so I can change it as I go. But I write notes and ideas and diagrams and mini outlines in a large artist’s sketchbook. By the end, I have lots of notes and outlines. My outlines are living. They change and evolve. As I write, I go back to the outline and flesh out ideas in a list. Events, emotions, and purpose. For me, every chapter has to have a goal of what I want to get across. I remember the first draft of DISTILLATION, before I had learned this, had whole chapters of description and what I thought was character development, but no action, nothing to move the plot foreword. Now, I consider the purpose of every chapter. Often, when I finish writing for the day, I will cut and paste the next part of the outline below my stopping point, so I know where I am going the next day.

Step 4 – write chapters.

This is of course the longest process. At somewhere around 100 pages I will go back and read through, and usually edit and revise that, as well as my outline, before I move on. For COLD SPRING FIRE, I have a past and a present to deal with. Two separate arcs of intertwined plot. This is the challenge for me this time around. Weaving those two sets of events will be the primary focus of my work. Depending on how caught up in the story I get, I can write a hundred pages in about a week. Or, a hundred pages can take me a month. We will see...

So, that is how I write a novel. Or at least how I get started. There are twists and turns and music and pictures and a lot of pacing along the way too.

How do you do it?

As a reader, do you like books that have past and present?

What kind of plot structures turn you off or on?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Truth in Fiction

Come the end of June, I can finally focus again on writing. Happy to have found representation for my DISTILALTION, this summer I will work on one of two new novels I began over the past two years and maybe come close to completing a draft. I have chosen to work on the one tentatively titled COLD SPRING FIRE, and for the past few months I have been considering what I have so far and where I want to go with it. Much of what I have been thinking about is the truths I will spin into the fiction of that story, and how that fiction will make sense out of a variety of "truths" that haunt me.

I write fiction to exorcise demons and dreams. Writing fiction is a way for me to process places and experiences from the near or recent past and to turn them in to something completely different, something that turns my impressions into a new truth. There is no one truth. All different perspectives make up a varied truth. An individual truth can never be true to anyone but the person who creates it. And a person's truth about a single experience can change over time.

In DISTILLATION, I delved into my time spent in a little town in western, Massachusetts. The events in the novel have nothing to do with my life there, but the shapes of the characters and the especially the main character's feelings, issues, and personality were spun from real life. No one in the novel portrays a real person though, and so when people ask me if they are in my novel, I can say of course, or I can say no. Both are true. Interestingly, people like to hear they are in the novel, but even more interestingly, they often miss the qualities sprinkled here and there that I actually took from what is my truth about them, because it is not the truth they see for themselves.

COLD SPRING FIRE  is based on my formative years. My teenage years. I spend a lot of time with teenagers, and one of the reasons I went in to teaching was because I liked being a teenager. It was great fun. But it was also a time, as it is for all adolescents, of great insecurity, great risks, great fear, and many mistakes. The world comes at you like an onslaught. It is hard to understand why things happen as they do, or to make rational decisions about your options when you are young. Scott Fitzgerald called youth a form of chemical madness. I have to agree with this. Teenagers push the limits just to find out where the edge of the world is. Teenagers have a love affair with darkness. They want to rebel and to seek an identity all their own, but are of course shaped more than they know by the identities of their parents, even as they defy everything their parents want. And the ways in which teens often try to control their destinies and deal with their emotions appear to those on the outside as madness or destruction. Both perspectives of course are true.

The new novel will again be about living in a small town, just as DISTILLATION was. I love the atmosphere and mystery of small towns, especially rural ones where there seems to be nothing but trees. In towns like this the school is often the center of life. There are families that come and go, and those that have been there forever. There are appearances to keep and secrets behind every neatly mown lawn.

What I look forward to most is the weaving. When I write I become entranced by a river of shining threads. They originate from my memories, my fantasies, my day to day experiences. The sound of the wind in the trees. A remembered moment passing between two people without words, spoken just with the eyes. Laughter from another room. The dry heat and cedar smell of a forest on an August afternoon. Moonlight on water, soaked with the stink of pond. A black and white photograph hiding a secret. The smell of fire in the spring.

It is like a visual, auditory, and olfactory symphony in my head and it consumes me once I really get going. It is interesting too that sound and smell play such a large part in both my memory and my writing. I am very affected by these senses, more so than most it seems at times. These are how my truths take shape. This is how I turn my truth into fiction. Or perhaps, how I turn my fiction into truth.

How do you define truth?