I’ve been working on “New Project #3” since late August. I have 93 ms pages. I’ve learned far more about my two protagonists (who also serve as the novel’s antagonists) than I had thought I’d needed to know when I finally started the book, after six months of notes-cum-scene development. I also know a lot more about other characters, scene progression, pacing, and what the story is about.
This is where the fun REALLY begins; this is where the angst REALLY launches from the shadows.
Philip Roth has said that the first eight months of any new project filled him with doubt and anxiety. What is the story about? Who are all of these people I have given name and voice and body to? What is the connection that gives this story sense, and meaning, and energy? Such thoughts, and the problems that go with the territory of writing a novel, have stopped many great writers, and more-so the fledgling type, in their tracks. And while I’m often slowed in my progress by the story’s difficulties, or simply the process of understanding one thing (or five) before going on to the next, I’m no longer “stopped” … and I’m never “blocked” (I don’t believe in writer’s block).
For my first two published novels I used a specific methodology that helped me write the story from a first-to-last chronology. It’s success taught me that I shouldn’t look for some other “way” to get into, sustain, and finish a novel. I haven’t even entertained a different method; the previous five mis-fired novel starts never got this chance, and perhaps that is for the best. Whatever the case, I had found a way that suited me best to stay focused.
The short answer to what I do is … I take six months before starting at Page 1 to find dozens, even more than one-hundred, scenes that can fit into the book. These come to me as character thoughts, dialogue, narrative, story movement, metaphors & similes, setting location descriptions, short-profiles of particular characters, wholly developed scenes amounting to five, ten, even twenty pages. Most are less than half a page: sketches of scenes that are the kernel of a fully developed scene; bits of dialogue; two images with a gesture; a line of narrative to set place and story moment.
At some point I begin to see patterns, and to find a narrative arc (the beginning, middle, and end; the rising action and how the story can close). This is where the story takes firm hold in my mind as “written” material (where before it was mental imagery and “heard” voices). Then I place the scenes in some sensible (but not concrete) order, a chronology of character events. At this point dozens of spaces exist between these islands of story. Nevertheless, the characters have begun speaking amongst themselves in my head, and I know it’s time to begin the real task of laying down the story from the beginning. I call the process I’ve just described The Stepping-Stone Method.
Some might call this an outline (I do not). It is a sheaf of specifically linked scenes that need to be filled in. For this current book, I figure I have 150 potential scenes cataloged. That’s not enough, evidently, because, as I’ve been writing this past week, every day I find new ways to tell a particular part of the ongoing story. These were all in my mind, and many were sketched out on paper, but getting them into the story, as story, has made me effect changes — to character, to scene (new scenes!), and to place. However, the intent of the story (what the story is about; how to hold to this theme/vision on every page, in every sentence) hasn’t changed; it grows with increasing awareness, focus, and edge.
Here is where discovery is made: threads of dialogue, the character action-reaction that is the heart of any piece of literature, who says what (sometimes I switch what one character says to the other; don’t always give the best lines to one character), taking three paragraphs to tell a short background moment/memory, references to this event or that person or some piece of music/film/news-event, &etc. We writers are in the midst of artistic creation, and that happens every time we sit down and get to work.
This happened to me while I wrote The Village Wit. It happened while I wrote What Beauty. It’s happening again with “New Project #3” … and yet I still feel the anxiety of wanting to make-things-right-before-I-move-ahead-or-otherwise-I’ll-fuckitallUP! But I don’t allow myself too much of that type of thought; only late at night, or while I’m trying to remember a date that is important to the scene because this-that-and-the-other links to it further on (or way back at the front). AHHHHHHH!
You see what I mean?
All of which is to highlight that I’m on the right trail of a story. My stepping-stone method prevents me from straying into something (or some place) that is tangential to the story; this method lets me look ahead, make needed changes, add a whole scene or a sentence (a single word!) … and … always, always, always … find the thread of what this story is about. I take my time because I can, because this is literature, this is art, and therefore I know a light exists at the end of this long, sometimes dark, trail of a story.
“Write something every day,” encouraged Isak Dinesen, “without hope or despair.” I primed myself with these words this morning; I’ll be repeating them two years from now. The work has only just begun.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book available in print and as an ebook.