Taming the Shaggy Beast: Letting Your Novel Write Itself

The laconic comedian, Stephen Wright, once said, “I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” Now there’s a man determined to tame the shaggy beast, as Henry James called the novel form. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer a few more practical strategies for getting the job done than just imagining you’ve gotten to the end by putting the numbers on blank pages. So with that in mind, let’s start with the notion that our novels all exist, fully formed, in a pre-vocabulary state, and are just waiting for us to find the words to fill those pages. In other words, let’s test the idea that even when we make our first moves with character, setting, point of view, action, detail, and language, we are beginning to articulate the heart of the novel, the thing we’ve come to say through our characters and events. The prospect of filling all those pages can be a frightening one, so let’s see if we can demystify it to the point that you’ll feel comfortable following the trail as it goes, or to put it another way, letting the novel write itself.

I’d like to suggest one way of making your novel manageable as you begin to write it. Paying close attention to the things that our characters have in their possession or surround themselves with can often help with establishing a plot. We need to get our characters into trouble. . .  or I should say, we need to let them get themselves into trouble.  Let’s begin by  listing any concrete details you connected to your main character (white, straw cowboy hat, pointy-toed boots, eyeglasses, a Parker 51 Fountain pen, a purple Martin bird house, a powder blue 1965 Mercury Comet). Think about how at least one of those details opens up something about how the character wants to view him or herself. Think about what this character wants or fears. Often a character becomes extremely interesting and also invites trouble because of the tension that exists between what he or she presents to the world and what he or she carries inside. Spend some time thinking about the facade your character operates behind. Think about how the things he or she owns—candy, a Bible, a white cowboy hat—are representative of the layers of the character. Complete the following sentence: He or she liked the ___(fill in the object)_____________ because. . . . Then find a place to add and complete this sentence: but there were times when. . . . And, finally, a third sentence, One day. . . .

The objective is to use an object associated with the main character as a way of sparking trouble and putting a plot into motion. Think of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby and how at the end of the first chapter Nick Carraway spots Gatsby standing on the shore and reaching out his arms to it. The plot of the novel comes from Gatsby’s desire. The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is emblematic of that desire, and it allows Gatsby’s pursuit which, of course, drives the narrative of the novel.

Sometimes narrowing our focus to something small like an object that the main character owns, or one he or she fears, or one he or she desires, can make our task as a novelist less intimidating. No longer are we trying to see the entire book. We’re only focusing on one detail and following the story that it has to tell.



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