Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writing a Novel is a Process

So I'm writing a novel. It's not the first time. It likely won't be the last. Over the years, I've started many different stories which I thought would become novels and in each one, about half way through, I stalled. For various reasons, I suppose. But more likely due to my own ambivalence. Is this good, is this a story people would want to read, is this a story I really care about or am I just writing for the sake of writing? So many questions.

The first novel I started was back in a time when I was going through a rough patch in my life. More than 10 years ago. I needed some place to escape. I started this story, oddly it began as a children's story and quickly took a turn into something totally not suited for a young market, about a child who disappears and there are cult aspects and human sacrifice and bad parents and all that mumbo jumbo. I labeled it a psychological thriller. What it really was though, was atrocious. I didn't know what I was doing. I used to write in a linear fashion. As soon as my characters came up against a road block (in a secret tunnel and they didn't know how to get out) so did I. Moving forward seemed impossible because if I couldn't do it in a straight line, well then, hell...the story would never go anywhere. When I think back about this story though, there are some interesting characters and maybe one day they will make their way into another story. This story, tentatively titled, Ultimate Sacrifice, really was my sacrifice. I used it for many years to help me develop as a writer. Likely, in its current form, it will never see the light of day, but it got me writing and forced me to examine many facets of writing and ultimately become a better writer.

The second novel began in 2009. I thought I was finally ready to write a novel. After years of writing short stories and finding moderate success it seemed like the logical next step. The story, about a woman who discovers the family she thought was hers, really wasn't and a sinisterish, self-indulgent birth mother trying to find this said woman for selfish reasons. She solicits the help of a seedy PI with problems of his own to help her find this woman. Oh lord. This novel sucked to ginormous proportions. Too many story lines, too much happening, I couldn't keep it all straight. And whose story was it really? By this time I had learned that I didn't have to write in a straight line. I could write all over the place and if I got stuck on something, move on to another scene until I got unstuck. Despite this story being a giant platter of poop that eventually got shoveled into a drawer with the other, one thing did come out of it. Shermeto, the seedy PI. He became a character that people loved, he took over the story while the other characters fell flat and no one gave a shit what happened to them. This novel was titled Shades of Blood. Blah. Blah. Blah. I would never give up on Shermeto though.

Insert a few more short stories, nominations for awards, contest finalist, a second place win and lots of book reviews.

The third novel stemmed from a funny conversation with a friend about old people and how her and I would be those crazy old ladies wreaking havoc in the senior's home, hiding people's false teeth and just being general trouble makers. We laughed about it and then I wrote what I thought would be a short story. It wasn't. It became bigger. The characters became bigger. They had greater stories than I could ever have imagined. Which of course veered me onto a different path.

I had been working part time with seniors with dementia. It was a wonderful experience but it made me wonder why some elderly are so cranky? I began to examine this aspect of aging and what could cause us to become bitter and hateful in our old age. An interesting story really started to emerge. But it became difficult. Too much information needed to be told. Too much history. In my best attempt at this I started to write it chronologically and somehow this story became more historical fiction and I became overwhelmed with details. Historical elements that needed to come into play. So overwhelmed that I started to lose interest in the story. I needed a break. I still love this story and hope that one day I will be able to find the right way to tell it.

The biggest thing I've learned thus far is that you really have to find something that you're passionate about. Something you want the world to hear, to see, to read. Give them a new way of thinking about ordinary situations. But if you're going to carry through, you have to love your characters as much as you want your readers to love them. And so this brings me back to Shermeto.

He was never far from my mind. Intriguing and complicated and quite an ass most of the time. But there's always a reason, right? We all have causes that we're passionate about, or at least we should, whether it's saving the environment, finding a cure for cancer, bringing awareness to mental health, ending childhood hunger, we all have something in the back of our minds that motivates and imprints on us. Something we care deeply about.

Mine is homelessness. The marginalized citizens we share our cities with. So many turn their noses up at them, see them as stray dogs who have no use in society. So I put Shermeto on the streets. Lost in the vast towering world of oil and gas, shiny shoes and pressed suits. I love this story now. I write in chunks, random scenes that seem to have no purpose, but as I carry on, the story is forming, taking a shape that is better than I thought possible. And I'm motivated. It's not historical. At least not in a sense that it takes place in a time I know absolutely nothing about. So I'm not tangled and choked by historical facts. It just is what it is and I'm approaching the end of the first draft. I'm focused, I'm motivated. I care about this story and these characters. I want, maybe need, to tell this story and I am.

So I guess the point of this whole post is simple, writing a novel is a process that's not limited to the pages of one story. And no writing is wasted. Even if it seems pointless at the time, anything we write teaches us something. It could be about character, about motivation, about imagery, about story arc, or it could be about us, as writers and what matters to us. It's all trial and error until you find that one nugget that is so important to you that you can't let it go.

It makes you sad, it makes you emotional, and it makes you a writer.

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