Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Begin Again

So, here we are again. At the start of a novel.

At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to have dinner with a writer whose work I particularly admire. He was extremely kind to me, and his advice basically boiled down to one thing: "Start the next book." I asked him about degrees and teaching and part time jobs to break up the loneliness and he basically brushed off my questions and said: "Start the next book."

So I did. It's a strange thing. I've been here before. I last had this feeling when I switched from writing and publishing short stories to really tackling my novel. I was pretty terrified. I had gotten into the groove of writing stories that I knew would get accepted. I'd even (ssh, don't tell) gotten to the point where I would have double and triple acceptances, and had started to change my submission policy so I wouldn't have the embarrassing problem of needing to pull a story from a magazine I admired, without a second piece to offer in exchange. The only explanation, dear editors, that I have for my behavior is that it never really occurred to me that I would ever become a person who had multiple acceptances. For someone who is essentially an optimist, I can have a pessimistic streak dictated by my own insecurity. I think all writers are like this.

So, on to the first novel. I'd grown so accustomed to thinking in 5 to 6 thousand word chunks, I had difficulty adjusting to the room that a novel requires--though if I'm honest, that particular mental prison only lasted for a couple of months, though I do notice that my chapters each ended up being around the same length as my average short story.

I think the moment at which the novel really fell into place for me--aside from the wonderful read and editing I had from my editor--was when I had a very clear sense of all my characters, and how they felt and how they were inter-related and what they thought about each other. It really is as they say: character is more important than plot. This is because people cause things to happen most of the time. I remember doing a little chart, sketching out people's names and who was related to whom and who hated who and why. Then the whole thing was sort of contained in my brain.

I'm too embarrassed to show you what that chart looks like. For starters, it will make sense to no one but me, and my handwriting has degenerated so much over the past couple of decades, I could give a physician writing out a prescription a run for his money. But, for fun, above is an example of the kind of chart I mean. It comes from a Japanese television drama--Japanese TV shows regularly include these little maps as part of their promotion. And really, it is a handy way to think of stories--emphasizing the characters and what they do. For me, this is the last thing that comes to me. My friends will tell you how much I love to write description and set a mood and make a physical place come to life. People are much more difficult (this is because people are much more difficult).

I've been wondering what I would want to change about my process this time and what I could do to work a bit smarter. I decided that I wouldn't write until I had something like my old chart all squared away. I would dispense with a neat outline--which I'd tried and failed to use before--and stick with something more conceptual. Again, I wanted to know who loved who, and who was jealous and who was obsessed and who was grieving and where they all were and what the atmosphere was like and so on. And now that I have all that information, there's nothing really to stop me from getting started. So, here I go.

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