I truly never thought I could do it. Sure, I’ve been in the professional field for many years—writing and reading book proposals for our publishing outsource company, editing, copyediting, proofreading. When I began my master’s program lo these many years into my life, I wanted to understand more about what drives me, why I do what I do, and how, in the process of reviewing proposals and manuscripts for my day job, to be able to put my finger on what works and what doesn’t—and why. In short, I needed what my new country friends would call a cattle prod.
What did I think I could never do? I thought I could never write a novel, sustain a storyline, weave a tale. I edit, after all, so that means cut cut cut—rarely add add add. How does a writer take a story and make it last for 200, 400, 800 pages? (Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for raising the bar on me.) How does a writer weave a tale that keep the pace, cause readers to invest in characters, create an arc that keeps readers turning pages, and then, at last, provide a satisfying ending?
I saw it as an impossibility.
Then I took Professor Cathy Day’s Fiction Writing Class. She’d be thrilled if I told you that after one semester I answered all of the above questions, mastered the techniques, and wrote the great American novel. But she also wouldn’t want me to lie. What she did for me, however, was teach me to write a novel by giving me a bite-sized assignment: “Write a set of stories that link.”
I can sustain a story for maybe twelve pages. I can work on characterization so that my readers know one protagonist well and resonate with him or her.
So write a story.
Okay, now write another.
Okay, now write a third.
Make them link. Have an overarching theme that ties these stories together—location, relationships, whatever. Interweave a plot line.
I can do that.
Then I had 25 pages and wrote to Cathy in dismay, “I’ve written 25 pages and nothing has happened!”
Cathy suggested that I use the storyboard technique we talked about and worked on in class. Out come the index cards. Write out each scene. Rearrange. See what happens.
Enter the plot line. Only trouble is interesting. Create trouble. With guidance from Cathy and the help of Michelle Hoover’s “Plotting Your Novel,” I studied my key characters in each story. What do I know about these characters? What is their flaw? What do they want? What will happen if they don’t get it? What then? How will the characters react? Get inside the characters, in their “souls,” as Cathy would say.
Go back to my index cards, noting these elements along with the characters in each scene. Are they acting as they should? Is this scene advancing the storyline? Are my characters real and sympathetic (even the bad ones) or mere caricatures?
Get hung up on the details.
Stop writing for a day or two and decide it’s impossible.
Cathy encourages, “Just keep writing. Don’t get hung up on the details. Just get it all out of your head and down on paper.”
So I begin to bang away at the keys until I have a story. Fill in the blanks. Keep typing. Don’t worry about inconsistencies. That’s what editing is for. It’s not polished. Not perfect (I hate that). Not fully realized. Lots of flaws (I hate that, too). But keep going. Get it written. Take my characters’ desires and stir up some trouble (hey, this is fiction—anything can happen!), and see what they do.
After getting it down, it’s time to go back and revise (that I do know how to do—edit, cut cut cut, shape, focus). Whose POV is the focus in each story? Am I staying consistent? Are the links making sense—that is, are my characters interacting naturally or does anything feel forced? (Just because anything can happen in fiction doesn’t mean suspending belief.) Is the dialog believable?
I’m at 63 pages now—I know, not anywhere near the great American novel. But I can turn in a nicely polished assignment. But beyond that, you know what? I know that with my little story, there is so much more yet to say. So much more to explore with my key characters along with some minor characters. Backstory to create. Other plot lines to discover.
Don’t get me wrong . . . this is hard work. But I can begin to see it now—how a writer weaves a tale, sustains a storyline, creates and builds interest. And the more work I do, the more I appreciate those who’ve gone before me and written the great books we still read today. It’s sheer brilliance.
And maybe, just maybe, I can do it.