Spring is creeping in, and isn’t it about time? Here in the heartland, we earn our springs. Temperatures above fifty, the sight of green shoots coming up in flowerbeds, birdsong at dawn—it’s enough to give us hope.
It takes a world of optimism to write a novel. We have to convince ourselves that such a thing is possible. So here in early spring, are some things I’ve learned.
I had to wait until I was ready to attempt a novel, which means I had to live long enough to think of people’s lives as the results of a series of choices made over a broad sweep of time. Unlike the short story writer, who relies on compression to create illuminative moments at the end of a narrative, the novelist lets the narrative stretch both backward and forward, adding layers and layers of texture to the characters and their stories.
I had to make good use of the setting. The world of a novel first begins in a specific place, and that place has much to do with the story that gets told.
Ditto for time period. The world is at work during each era in which a novel is set. I had to pay attention to the social, political, cultural, historical events in order to understand who my characters were and why they did the things they did.
I had to make myself curious. How would my readers be interested in knowing where the narrative was going if I wasn’t curious about that same thing when I was writing? My novel, River of Heaven, started when I saw a news item from my native southeastern Illinois about a man who built a doghouse for his basset hound in the shape of an elaborate sailing ship. I wanted to know what might make a man do that. I was curious, and that was enough to get the novel underway.
I had to stop in the midst. Each day when I wrote, I tried to finish a scene and then start the next one. That way, when I came back to the work the next day, I didn’t have to sit and think about what might happen next. I simply had to pick up the work in the middle of what I’d written the day before.
I had to find out where I was in the story I was telling. I had to know what was at stake for me before I could fully understand and appreciate and dramatize what was at stake for the characters.
I had to know what it was about the story that interested me most. Sometimes the thing that first brought me to the page wasn’t the thing that was most important to me. I wrote 200 pages of my novel, The Bright Forever, before I knew that the point of view I’d chosen wasn’t allowing me to explore what I was really interested in exploring—the effects of a crime on different populations of a small town. I started over. I changed the point of view. That was an exciting day. That was the day when I really knew what the book was going to be.
I had to be willing to go slow while also moving ahead. Sometimes I had to accept that 500 words would be a good day of writing. Sometimes it was enough just to live again for a time in the world of the book. Some days, I would rewrite a sentence from the previous day’s writing, and before I knew it, I’d have 1,000 words, 2,000, or more.
I had to be open to surprise. Even if, as the writing progressed, I started to have an idea of the shape of the book and what was waiting for me up ahead in the narrative, I had to be alert to the things that my characters might say or do that would change my thinking in a good way. I had to be willing to follow my characters, knowing I would later have time to rein them in if need be.
I had to finally look at the end of the book and to ask myself what was in the narrative that was necessary to that end, what wasn’t, and what might still need to be added. That was the start of revision. I had to accept the fact that revision was an exciting opportunity for me to know my novel better and to add and cut what belonged and what didn’t.
I’m still learning. Each book I write teaches me something else. Each book demands something new from me. This writing game is a life-long apprenticeship. Each time I start a novel, I know I’m committing myself to the long-haul. Many seasons will pass before I finish. Summer will lead to autumn and winter and spring.