Saturday, February 28, 2009

Climbing a Novel

I'm finding novel writing to be much like climbing a tree. There's a solid trunk - a character with a past that can't be changed, events that are in place that give me footing to climb and branch out from. The trick is in finding the right branches to put my weight on. What limbs does she need to go out on in order for her story to realize it's full arc?

On my desktop at this moment are three open documents. One is titled "New", the next "Scraps of New" and the last, "More Scraps of New." New is my trunk. It's forty solid pages of writing that can't and/or shouldn't be changed - save for editing and rewording upon revision, of course.

The two Scraps documents each contain pages of scenes that could take place. Branches that I haven't yet decided to put my full weight on. The story itself is fluid enough that there isn't one specific chain of events that could lead to the ultimate catharsis I have envisioned for the end.

Is that strange? To know the general direction your character must go emotionally/relationally, and the conclusion they will arrive at - but to not have a firm grasp on what exactly will transpire to bring the protagonist to that point?

Strange or not, it's part of my scattered process in this new journey of novel writing. Very different from short story writing. More difficult, for me. I am not a terribly focused person.

Case in point, the documents on my desktop (and the multiple other "scraps of" documents in my files), and also the bagel that I just burnt in my toaster oven while writing this.


Margosita said...

The other night a friend and I were discussing what we wanted to work on for our MFA thesis. We are both at points where we don't have much more than a basic scrap of an idea. There are people we know, though, that already have a book in mind. They have plot charts an idea of what'll happen in every chapter, etc... But my friend pointed out that these are the people who are struggling the most in workshop, who are unwilling to listen to what workshop feedback is telling them and are, seemingly, pushing their characters into inorganic situations, because that's how they think their books are supposed to go.

Your approach sounds better. You're letting your novel tell you how to write it, instead of the other way around.

Mella said...

I'm terrible at organization and can't commit to mapping out a work before I write it. In fact, I think the very idea sort of bores me. I like to be entertained by the story as it progresses naturally. Even in short story writing, I don't ever sit at the computer with a clear idea of what it is I'm going to write.

What fun is it if there isn't the element of magic that happens while you're typing?

I guess I've always felt more like the writer driving in the fog, as E.L. Doctorow put it:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Robert Olen Butler is big on knowing the entire novel before even writing the first word. Something about putting it all down on index cards and then being able to reshuffle the scenes and reimagine which branches (to mix metaphors) to climb.

Personally, I like just having a few ideas and working through them as best as possible. There's a lot of people who do and that's when people start talking about characters writing the novel or characters telling the author what to do. Now, I'm not advocating listening for the little voices inside your head, but the fact that people even use such phrases is enough proof for me that your method works just fine for a lot of people.

I label my documents "novel" and "novel notes" or take a lead from Adrianne Rich and call it "notes toward novel" -- it makes me feel more productive. I think calling them scraps would make me nervous.

Mella said...

Yeah, I'm really not a note card sort of writer. I have a couple of would-be finished novels, all mapped out in my mind, but they aren't the ones that I'm interested in actually writing. If that makes any sense.

Notes is probably a nicer way to label the scenes from this novel that I have sitting in various documents. But, I don't assign much weight to the titles that I give the documents anyhow.

And...I tend to cut and paste from one document to the other so much that it feels more like a kid at a table with saftey scissor's leaving behind scraps that wouldn't make sense to anyone unable to see the larger work that they went into creating.

nova said...

Oh, Mella, I love the tree analogy. I'm still down at the roots of my new novel -- my narrator can't even keep a solid name; I keep changing it! I do know what you mean about knowing where you are headed but not exactly how you will get there. Middles are the death of me: I see the starting point, I see the end, but making the end earn the start is always the hardest part for me.

I guess that's why this novel-writing takes so much out of us! Best of luck to you with yours.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said... feels more like a kid at a table with saftey scissor's leaving behind scraps that wouldn't make sense to anyone unable to see the larger work that they went into creating.

Oh! I get it now! That is completely not-scary. :)