Ten Thoughts about Writing a Novel
1. Writing a draft of a novel for me is often a process of discovering what it is that I want to hold back until the end. That something may be a plot turn, or it may be something that the main character doesn’t know about him or herself, or best of all, it may be both. Whether we’re talking plot or characterization, I’m on the lookout for what I want to keep from the reader. Once I know that, I start looking at how to make that secret present from the beginning while at the same time making sure it’s unannounced.
2. Sometimes I read through a draft and identify the single piece of information in each chapter that contributes to some sort of shift in the plot. That’s my way of making myself aware of why each chapter exists. No important information for the plot? Hmm. . .maybe that’s a chapter I just don’t need. So much of revising a novel is a matter of making it lean.
3. That said, I also have to be aware of scenes that haven’t yet made it onto the page. Usually these are scenes that dramatize what I need to make the plot and the character development convincing.
4. The book I’m writing will often turn out not to be the book I thought I was writing. Characters in action create things I never could have imagined when I first started to envision the narrative.
5. There are a number of ways to write nearly every sentence. Eventually I have to look at the book line by line to make sure the pacing and the sound of each moment is appropriate for what it’s trying to express.
6. I have to give myself permission to over-explain in my first draft. Often, this is a way of talking to myself as I make clear exactly what the book is about and how the characters evolve.
7. In my revision process, I have to take out all that over-explaining. I have to forget what I know and trust that it will be there in its absence.
8. What if? What if? What if? I can ask that question countless times as I let the plot unfold. Often it’s best to take several trips around my first idea. I’ve learned not to trust it. I’ve learned that something better exists beyond that first thought. I’m comfortable with the fact that everything can change. I’m open to whatever will work, but first I have to keep asking that question. What if?
9. At some point, I need to know what’s at stake for me in the writing of the book, not just what’s at stake for me as a writer, but also what’s at stake for me as a person. The two identities are never very far apart.
10. A novel is a journey, not only for the characters but also for the writer, and like any journey it starts with a single step and the faith that little by little the traveler will reach the end.
Never underestimate the inspiration you provide us as we continue to search for our respective voices…sometimes heard …more often than not subconscious …recently began working with a prison population preparing for re entry …planning to use some of your ideas with them…hope surfaces when we begin to understand some of the forces that determine our karma…your work exudes this fundamental process…thanks
Thank you, Robert. Your comment comes at a time when I’ve started to question whether I have much else to say on this blog. Something always seems to come to me, though, so as long as I know that people are finding what I say to be useful, I’ll probably continue. I wish you much good luck with your work with the prison population preparing for re-entry. You’re making a difference, my friend. Good for you.
What an insightful post. So much good stuff here, not only about revision, but about learning to trust in yourself and your process as a writer. I especially love #10. Thanks.
Continually searching for the headwaters or source of an inner voice that needs release…distractions and false negatives/positives abound,confusion and misperceptions reign at times…but clarity is forthcoming…thanks for leading the way Lee…hope to see you at Rowe in June…
Robert, I’m afraid The Sun’s writing retreats are on hiatus for 2014: http://thesunmagazine.org/get_involved/events
I hope you continue to write in your blog, albeit sporadically. I’m new to it and find the comments insightful and interesting. It’s like a novel in that it often says things I already know (and have forgotten), as well as things I have said in my fifty years of teaching, but it says them in what is clearly your voice. That gives them weight and evokes attention to truths about writing that I need to remember again. Best regards.
Thanks for your kind words, Carl. I try to post a new entry each Monday. I hope you’ll keep coming back. I welcome your contributions to our ongoing conversation about writing, publishing, teaching, and stuff.
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