Monday, March 17, 2008

Novel 101--Prep Work

So, I've spent the past week working on my next novel. But I haven't added even one word to the document. No, I'm not outlining; I haven't gone over to the darkside or anything, and I am thinking about my characters and their story (because, that's who it belongs to. Them not me.). But, I'm trying to do some prep work, so that when I do sit down with a new pen and a stack of fresh, crisp yellow legal pads, I can leap into the ZONE.

So, with no further ado . . .

1.) Planning Backwards. In my previous life as an English teacher, I learned to approach each new unit with the main question: what do I want my students to know/understand/be able to do at the end of this unit? And once I had that answer(s), I knew where to start and how to plot out my lessons. When I started All the Numbers, I knew I had to get Ellen to that dock at the lake, tossing James' ashes into the wind and letting go of her grief and rage. So, I've spent lots of time thinking about my main characters--where do I want them to be at the end of the book. I'm not worrying about the nuts and bolts of how I'll get them there, that'll happen as the journey progresses, but I want an image to write towards. Last night I came up with a "controlling question" which is, Who are Maggie and Jim and Grandma Foley going to become in a world without Rosie? As I think about that in the days to come, I have to believe their characters will fall into place.

2.) Taking my Waking Slow (with apologies to Theodore Roethke). Some of my very best writing comes when I'm still in bed and barely awake. I love it. I'm still in somewhat of a dreamlike state and my mind wanders freely. Total stream-of-consciousness. And I've learned to embrace that time--whether it's 5 minutes or a half hour. It's a time when an idea will pop up and I'm able to let it float to see if it has legs. This morning the image formed of Jim walking the dark streets when he can't sleep, walking for hours in the middle of the night. And I realized that Maggie had been adopted and suddenly is curious about her birth mother. Now, I'm not sure where these musings will lead, but I've jotted them down in my notes. And in mornings to come I know these snapshots will either become more fully developed or fade away. But I get to practice before I sit down to write. And because of it, when I do put pen to paper I'll much more easily slip into the zone, that wonderful rhythm in writing when the story and characters lift me up and take me to their world and I'm simply recording their story rather than directing it or forcing it.

3.) Starting at the Very Beginning. In July 2004, I attended a week-long workshop on "Your First Twenty Pages." Along with directly leading to my being offered representation and ultimately selling my manuscript to Random House, I finally understood the importance of those first pages, that all-important first chapter. Amy made mention of this when she commented about my last Novel 101 post. This is your reader's entry into the world you've created. Characters are introduced, conflicts are hinted at, voices are established. If your reader, reviewer, editor doesn't make it past the first chapter, your book is dead in the water. With that in mind, all week I've been pulling books off my bookshelves and reading first chapters. Reading slowly. Reading to take notes. These are all books I've read and know and love. So I'm looking to see what is suggested or insinuated in those first few pages. How am I pulled in without my even knowing? And how might I do the same in my first chapters. What needs to be told? What can wait?

Here are the books currently stacked next to me on the sofa--Judith Guest's Ordinary People, Elizabeth Berg's True to Form, Anna Quindlen's Blessings, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster, Anne LeClaire's Entering Normal, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

So, that's where I am right now. Planning, reading, and falling in love with these characters.


Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

Couldn't agree more with you about the beginning, Judy! It's the part I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite to death, getting it just, well - right! And I can't move forward at all - even if I know where the story is going - until I'm perfectly satisfied.

But once I'm perfectly satisfied, and do move on, I rarely go back and do much to it. I don't need to, because I've taken so much care with it.

I've always felt that the most important question we have to ask ourselves, as authors, for each chapter and certainly for each novel, is - "Just where in the story will I begin?" Because there are so many options; it's really an art to decide on just the right place. For the story, for the characters, and certainly for the readers.

Lisa said...

This is wonderful! I really enjoy this view into your process. Do you think that you'll know where to begin before you start to write your first draft, or do you think you'll begin and perhaps decide that the beginning comes later? (I suspect you are going to be able to work this all out before you start). I love the idea of visualizing images and scenes -- it reminds me of the Robert Olen Butler book, FROM WHERE WE DREAM that I read last year. He is a huge proponent of spending lots of time letting images and potential scenes emerge from the unconscious -- before the writing begins. I love this new series of posts!

The Writers' Group said...

Judy, I write the same way and if it's anycomfort, so does Julia Glass. Let it marinate, is her advice. Like Melanie, I too take my time with that first chapter: 6 months with TETHERED and now 3 months with WIP. And like Melanie, it seldom changes after that. What you suggest here goes against the grain of most how-to-write books, but to each her own. Good for you for taking road less traveled.

Amy MacKinnon

Janet said...

Planning backwards. Love that thought.

Julie Layne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Layne said...

How funny, I was just reading a chapter in Robert McKee's Story about the "controlling question" last night. :-)

Great post--thanks!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Melanie, You know, with both of my books, near the end of the process, I've gone back and added a prologue of sorts--and I've always said i couldn't have written it earlier because I didn't know my characters well enough to do so, but I'm thinking that if I take the time now, and really get that opening right, it might help the whole process. We'll see. I'm also tossing around POV issues, too. It's fun.

Lisa, I'm so glad you like this "series." I do think I'm figuring out how to begin--I know the situation that sets everything in motion. And this visualization stuff is helping me see how each of my characters is shaped by that definign event.

Amy, to be in your company--and Julia Glass'--well, I've gotta give it a shot, don't I? It just feels right. And so much of writing should be intuitive, so I'm just going where they take me.

Janet, Yeah, I embraced that concept in the classroom, and it feels so natural to be doing it with my novels as well.

Julie, Good to know others are in agreement. I migth have to check out that chapter as well.

Larramie said...

What a journey, traveling through your mind as you follow your own novel's path. Thanks for letting us tag along, Judy.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Simple as that. And I think I am going to love all that follow it. Thanks for the willingness to share.

Daisy said...

I enjoy Nicholas Evans' work (The Horse Whisperer, etc.) in part because of the way he thoroughly introduces the characters through their actions rather than physical descriptions. I can read and reread them, savoring the craft.

Seth Fleisher said...

Thanks for the great post, Judy. Absolutely agree about defining the ending, envisioning your characters there, and working toward it. Are you doing the same type of thing on a chapter-by-chapter level or do you leave it more flexible within each chapter?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Larramie--so good to have you along for the trip!

Kristen--thanks--it's nice to know this resonates with other writers.

Daisy--yes, that's the whole "show don't tell" idea. Actions do speak louder than words.

Seth--I tend to be more flexible with chapters--I have a general sense of where it's going, but that's it. We'll see how it happens this time around.

irreverentmama said...

This was fascinating. Thank you!

A neighbour lent me an Elizabeth Berg book last month, saying that it made her think of me. Since then I've read three more, so I love seeing that she's in your pile of inspiration reads.

I also have discovered that early morning time when the ideas just come! Sometimes, if I've been worrying about something I have to produce, I sort of stick that need at the front of my brain and then just wait and see what emerges. Something almost always does. It's wonderful to sort of sit back and let your sub-(semi-?)conscious take over.

Trish Ryan said...

What a great post. I've never thought about planning backwards in quite that way, but I'm excited to try it. I'm always amazed by what great help we writers can find with a jog around the blogsphere...thank you!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Irreverentmama--Oh, I do love Elizabeth Berg--and I was lucky enough to meet her once and she's utterly delightful. Thanks for stoppign by.

Trish--So glad my idea struck a chord with you. It's great having you over for a visit.