On Writing a Novel

on Sep 25 in Writing by

I have come to think that to write fiction, as opposed to memoir, creative and straight non-fiction, and divinely inspired material, which in some ways exists fully formed, at least in the mind of the writer, a novelist needs to have, at the very least, his or her characters well drawn. Whether this is an axiom or a function of my personality and skill set, I don’t know, but here’s some reasoning.

With Backward-Facing Man, my first novel, I discovered my characters while writing, slowly in fits and starts. Had you asked me early on who I was writing about — what their central struggles were and how I was going to demonstrate them through plot, setting, point of view, voice, etc. — at least on a conscious level, I would not have been able to tell you. I had a newspaper clipping about a negligent white-collar exec sentenced to jail for causing the death of an employee. I had a hunger to understand why so many so-called children of the sixties had become assholes — or at least had sold out and become the antithesis of what they purported wanted when they were coming of age. And I had time on my hands.

Why did I choose this method as opposed to mapping it out?

I didn’t know any better. I wanted to have fun. I was at a stage of my life and ambition and literary maturity, where terrific inefficiency, imposing on my friends, and bad writing didn’t really offend me.

What I got was a labored, distracted, and at times, boring book, with little glimpses of a pretty good story and interesting characters. So in August, 2003, after handing over my 900 page opus to a few unlucky readers, I busied myself for the next 14 months chucking hundreds of pages of what didn’t work (I agreed with virtually everything my friends/editors said) and composing new (also hundreds of pages) things that were missing.

For my second try, I thought about my characters in great detail for a year before writing a word — interviewing people they might have hung out with, reading stuff they’d have read, attending meetings of groups they’d have joined, etc. — so that by the time I started, I knew more of what made them tick. Why? I suppose I believe a well-conceived character will drive plot, setting, point of view, dialogue, etc. I also wanted to be more efficient. (If fiction hasn’t disappeared entirely as a genre, my chances of selling my next book will start going down in a year). And since this is all I do right now, the bar is higher for me — my tenuous economics and even more tenuous self-concept is the line, and I wince at the thought of showing people I respect hundreds of pages that suck.

Also, I have a sense that what’s fun about writing fiction – what I’m in it for – where dialogue jumps from my fingers and voice and setting are so vivid I can hardly type fast enough to keep up and things happen that please and delight me (high correlation I noticed last time between what pleased or bored me, and what pleased or bored readers!) — will happen easier if I do some heavy lifting on the front end.

I think what I’m saying is that I know better my process. I don’t write from beginning to end. I jump in places and when I’m stuck, I start in someplace else. I don’t formulate plot in too much detail, because I like that shit happens. I write summaries (frequently), but rarely refer to them; if I like what happens in them enough, they stick in my head. Besides, a different part of the brain is required to plan than to create, and I enjoy the creating part more.

Of course, the amount of optimal front end planning depends in large part on the fiction writer – his or her own character, process, personality, lifestyle, self-concept, ego and work habits (with the qualification that there is a possibility we may not know on a conscious level what happens when we work, and therefore all attempts to organize it are irrelevant).

This reminds me of Michelangelo’s quip: sculpture is taking a piece of stone and chipping away everything that isn’t a beautiful human form. For some, this is totally satisfying and logical. For others, art is additive, starting from nothing and piling on layers, and this kind of statement is nonsense.

As for advice, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything smarter to say than dive in, see what’s fun, change something, change it back, etc. And think of method or process as ritual — something deeper than technique — a way of positioning yourself to be struck by some really important god-like force.

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