One writer's musings on the process of producing a publishable product
|I’m writing the great American novel. Not at the moment, obviously, but it’s there—in the rear corner of my desk. All twelve pages. It used to be thirteen pages, but I’ve edited it a few times. And I’m pretty happy with the latest revision. Now if only I could decide where to go with the story from here.
Do you want to know how many times I’ve changed the protagonist’s name? Six. He’s had four first names and three last ones. For the moment, he’s Jack Swanson. No, that doesn’t sound quite right. Let’s make it Jack Watson. Okay, that’s seven times. He’s been married, single, divorced, and widowed in different versions. And I’m still not sure which is right for him.
Maybe he should cross paths with a serial killer. Or maybe he should be the serial killer. No, that won’t work. I don’t know how a serial killer thinks. How can I put myself inside his brain to write his story? Or, maybe it should be her story. Jane Watson. Or maybe Jane Swanson. Not that I can think like a woman any better than like a serial killer.
I should have traveled more when I was younger. Had an affair or two. Bungee jumped before it became popular. Spied for China. Stowed away on a garbage scow. Anything that might provide me with some inspiration.
I wonder if Herman Melville actually knew anyone named Ishmael. Was there really a Holden Caulfield? I don’t know enough people. Maybe that’s my problem.
Okay, it’s time to remind myself (again and again) (and again) what I’ve learned about writing. A good novel needs a main plot, a handful of subplots, and a few interesting people interacting and doing things. You have to define your characters just enough to grab the reader by the lapels, but not so much that you tear his or her clothes right off (unless, of course, the story calls for nudity). Let the reader get to know the characters as the story progresses. (Progresses. Good thought. I need to remember that. Make sure the story progresses.)
Seventh paragraph. This is the point where it strikes me that everyone who’s ever gotten bogged down while writing a novel has probably channeled their frustrations into an article about writing a novel. So this is just part of the process. Bear with me.
Exactly how does one go about writing a novel? Do you start with a list of characters, fully described? Then you just develop a story around them? Or do you come up with a killer first line, and let your pen or keyboard spew forth whatever spills from your head? I’ve tried both methods, and neither worked.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Marcie’s stare sliced into Stan like a Swiss army knife with all the blades open.
“You’ll just have to believe me.” Stan hoped that Marcie would believe him.
Sorry. Every now and then a great bit of dialog pops into my head, and I have to write it down before I forget it. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. What about the main plot? That’s easy. I just string a bunch of subplots together and expand the one that sounds the least stupid. Unless the story is supposed to be humorous, in which case the most asinine subplot wins. If I can’t decide which subplot to turn into the big kahuna, I don’t worry about it. I figure they’ll all be gone by the fourteenth edit anyway, and my characters will be in the middle of something even dumber (or not as dumb, depending on the intended mood).
Here’s a tip—you know you’re supposed to double-space the copy you submit to the agents and/or publishers? (You do submit your work eventually, don’t you?) I recommend double-spacing your hand-written drafts, too. This leaves room for editing, doodling, shopping lists, and reminders, such as “get a job that pays.” Double-spacing also gives you the impression that you’re progressing faster than you really are. Don’t have a lot of ideas? Then triple-space.
Ever get your characters mixed up?
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Why am I doing what to you?”
“Treating me this way.”
“Treating you this way? What about the way you’re treating me?” He stared at her in utter frustration. Then he turned and stomped out of the room. No, wait. She stared at him in utter frustration. Then she—no. Damn. I can’t remember who was saying what. I think Dawn started the argument, and Richard is the one who is stomping out. No. That can’t be it. Dawn isn’t even in this scene. It’s Denise. I knew I shouldn’t have changed all their names. Three times.
Make a plan, and stick to it. Not that this advice will guarantee you a great novel. Most likely it will do just the opposite. But it sure would have helped me remember who was yelling at whom.
If you’re really lucky (or really talented), eventually your novel will take on a life of its own, and turn you into a mere scribe. That’s good. Let it go. Hang on and enjoy the ride. That’s a lot easier than thinking. Before you know it, your main character will be up to his or her eyeballs in international intrigue, or a huge sex scandal, or a life-threatening medical emergency. Or whatever. Hey—it’s a climax. The story needs one.
And before you know it, voila—your novel is finished. Almost. Just a dozen or two more revisions and you can run off to Staples for copies, envelopes, mailing boxes, tape, and labels. And don’t forget another ream of printer paper, and a toner cartridge, so you can get right to work on your next masterpiece.
Now comes the excruciating wait. Days seem like weeks, weeks like months, etc. But one day it will all pay off. You’ll open that magic envelope or read that awesome email and see these words. “We are pleased to …,” or, “We are very happy to …,” or whatever they say in those letters. I wouldn’t know.