A Wing or a Prayer? Approaches to Writing a Novel

I am in the process of ushering some folks through the planning stages of writing a novel, in preparation for my upcoming course, Gathering Your Materials, which will operate in conjunction with NaNoWriMo but go much further.

Somerset Maugham is sometimes credited with saying, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Someone else talked about writing a novel as being like driving across the country in the dark: you can only see the three feet in front of you in the headlights, but you can go all the way like that. (The original quote, needless to say, is a heck of a lot more elegant.)

The main thing I’ve learned from both writing and teaching is that it doesn’t matter how it is done, it matters only how *you* do it. When I taught in the creative writing program at Pratt Institute, I worked for a whole year with fifteen creative writing majors. One of my assignments for them was to create a contract with themselves and me for the work they would do over each semester and how that work and its quality would translate into a grade. Each student had to contract individually, and what I noticed was that everyone came in to our initial conference and said something like, “I tend to write abstract poetry, so I am going to focus on narrative.” Or, “I tend to write really long, epistolary novels, so I am going to try flash fiction.” If they found that they stayed up for long weekends, hardly sleeping, and produced copious quantities of prose, they decided to force themselves to write for an hour each day. If they wrote best in the park, they were going to try to work at a desk. If they preferred to journal, they would try the computer, and if they read for inspiration, they were going to put those books aside.

This tendency–for the creative to try to reinvent themselves–is not isolated to my Pratt students. There are times when it seems that becoming an entirely different person would be easier than facing that next revision or approaching today’s blank page.

So the question is not, HOW do you write a novel? It is, How do YOU write a novel? And the answer, always, is that you write a novel in the same flawed, frustrating way that you do anything else in your life. Are you a list maker? Are you a fumble-blind-refuse-to-look-at-a-map-nik?

I guess this was the epiphany of my life, because I feel like I’ve written about it in every blog entry, but when I was giving birth, when I was waiting to be able to push my baby out, at a moment when most people have moved beyond language and become the animal beings that we all are, I was repeatedly asking, “What’s the plan? What’s the plan?”

So I am going to propose that changing who you are is about 700 billion times harder than getting down to business with the tools you’ve adapted to your own crazy way in.

Still, I am teaching a class, which is to say, I am offering myself as a sort of a guide, and in order to do this the best way I can, I asked myself, what do you need to write a novel? My answer is: some sort of framework (plot) to keep the thing up off the ground; a novelist’s instinct, so that you create vivid scene, characters, dialog, and so on, so that, in short, you write a novel and not a tract; and then another framework with which to approach the thing once it’s piled before you (likely, on your screen). And this is what I am offering in my courses, more or less.

Last year, when I wrote a novel draft in six or seven weeks, I started only with an idea. It was an idea I’d been harboring (and confessing) for about fifteen years. But it was only an idea. Now, rampantly, each night, it became a specific story with a protagonist who was in trouble. Lots of trouble. I had no idea what he should do, honestly.  I was still learning a lot of basic things about being a parent of two, and other basic things about writing 2000 words a day, and I had little to offer by way of advice for this guy chasing down priceless documents that offered him personal and professional redemption and the chance to turn at least his particular world upside down.

But because I had to go into a room and stare down the screen and make things happen, I did. Night after night. I winged it. And I learned a lot from winging it.

Now in the title of this blog, I am trying to make prayer stand in for planning, for asking for advice, for thinking ahead and staving off the trouble you can get yourself into if you do not. This may stretch the definition of prayer–or it may come kind of close to matching it. But go with me, if you will.

I have given all of these assignments to my students so that they may plot their novels, and I am giving myself the same assignments. (I marketed this as the course I wished I’d taken last year, and so it is.) But I notice that I am a little bit reluctant to give up on winging it, to see what emerges out of my head or heart or fingers or whatever it is that steers the story when I have two hours to produce 2000 words, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived.

At the same time, I have the manuscript from last year, and even though I think it is the best thing I ever wrote, it still needs support in many places where it sags to the ground, and it needs cropping where I resorted to babbling (in character) because I was waiting for something to happen and I had no idea what that might be. And if I could save myself the trouble of some of that, I suspect there’s something I’d get in exchange, which is a different level of discovery.

It’s the difference between being told a story–say, how your parents met–and being transported to that time and place to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall. What I mean is, without knowing anything much about my plot and character going in, I am essentially telling myself the story, listening for what is going on, what happens. But if I know what happens, then I am going in to learn what the textures and subtleties and meanings are in each moment, in each room, between people. I am creating the experience for myself.

There will be discoveries all the same, but instead of discovering the plot, I will be discovering the flesh of the flesh of the story.Or, to revert to my original metaphor, a little wind beneath the ol’ wing may loft me to a better view . . .

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