greygirlbeast (greygirlbeast) wrote,

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The How-To-Write-A-Novel Meme

I just saw this in matociquala's LJ, the "How-To-Write-A-Novel" meme, and I thought no, no no, don't even go there. Because whatever it is that I do, I think I've yet to find someone else who does it quite the same way, and I rankle at the suggestion that writing can be approached with anything like a formula. But. Then I thought of a scene from Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956), in which Georges-Pierre Seurat pedantically explains to a mystified Vincent Van Gogh how he, Seurat, has reduced the art of painting to dry mathematics. Which is pretty much how all "how to" approaches to writing leave me — mystified. But, also. I must admit that, while my own method of writing, in as much as I can claim to have a method, falls much nearer to Van Gogh's approach to painting than to Seurat's, I am quite fond of Seurat's paintings. So, regardless of how I may feel about applying scientific and/or reductionist philosophies to art, I must admit that at least Seurat's method worked for him. Which, I would hasten to add, is the one and only great "how-to" truth of writing a novel: What might work for me probably won't work for you. Or, to quote the Bear quoting John Gorka: "What once worked for you will not work for me." Anyway, because it seems to me that both Van Gogh and Seurat were capable of great things, I figure I can bring myself to give this strange meme a shot (behind the cut, because I know you might have better things to do):

First, note that there will be no bullet points. Nor will there be any mention of spreadsheets. Or slide rules. Or trigonometry.


How I write a novel.

First, I am seized with the desperate realization that it's time to write another novel, unless I want to starve and face eviction. That's almost always the first step. It is attended by stomach aches, cold sweats, and bad dreams.

Secondly, still reeling from the above realization, I begin to cast about for an idea. Any idea in whose company I can imagine spending the better part of a year or two. Sometimes, the idea takes the form of a character, and sometimes it takes the form of a scrap of plot, and sometimes it's more abstract. I might say, "Ah, I want to write a novel about a punk band," or "Wouldn't it be interesting to write a novel about the consequences of whatever it was happened in the last novel I wrote?" Something like that. Nothing fancy.

Now, at this point I might do some research into the settings and predominant aspects of the aforementioned idea. Or I might not. It just frelling depends. For Silk, I had to learn to play bass guitar and to be a barista and exactly how one might go about procuring peyote. But, I should note, I was already writing the novel before most of that research was done. For Threshold, I did virtually no research whatsoever, as I came to it knowing pretty much everything I'd needed to know to write the novel.

Er...what next? Umm...yeah, well, I sit down and start writing. My novels are without exception written in strict chronological order (unlike some of my short-story cycles, such as Tales of Pain and Wonder and Alabaster). First, the prologue. Then Chapter One. And so forth. I work without a net...or outline. Honestly, I've attempted the whole outline thing one or twice or maybe even three times, but it a) gets in the way, b) annoys me, and c) gets ignored anyway. Usually, after about Chapter Three, I have to make up some sort of synopsis for my agent and publisher. But there's an unspoken agreement that the finished novel will bear about as much similarity to that synopsis as a swordfish resembles a giraffe. I proceed word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence. Any given sentence may be rewritten ten or fifteen times, but if so, it is generally rewritten before proceeding to the next sentence. Make it more or less perfect, then and only then move on. I suppose this is why I have been accused of "sentence-level writing," though I've never been quite sure what was meant by the accusation. But. Usually, I only know what happens next because it seems the most logical consequence of what's just happened. Sometimes I know where I want a scene to go, or how I might like a character to behave, or I might even have some very definite wish for how it's all going to come together before THE END. But I know that if I get too attached to these attempts at prescience, I'm only going to get hurt.

During the writing of the book, this period of actual composition, a sort of rhythm emerges. I begin a chapter. It gets interrupted numerous times while I stop to write a short story or get stuck or have a long dry spell or take a trip or whatever. But eventually, I finish that chapter. I read over it with Spooky. I make a few, usually very minor, edits, then proceed to the next chapter. I repeat this process until, finally, months (Low Red Moon) or years (Daughter of Hounds) later, I reach THE END.

This begins what I call post-production. Principal photography has wrapped. I read the whole thing through with Spooky. She might read it back to me. We find more errors. I fix them. I might add a little something here or remove a little something there, which is always annoying because, by this time all the actors have scattered to the four winds and the sets have been struck and my favourite foley is busy on another project. But I muddle through. This usually takes me two or three weeks and produces what I laughingly refer to as a "first draft" (knowing, as I do, that the "final draft" will be almost indistinguishable). Used to, at this point, I'd print out a clean manuscript, stick the whole thing in a ms. box, and mail it away to NYC. Now that part's done by e-mail. Also, I used to have first readers who weren't Spooky, as recently as Low Red Moon (2002), but I never listened to what they said, which tended to irritate them, so I chose to streamline the process by dispensing with them altogether. At this point, I consider the novel provisionally finished. There will be minor edits later on, usually only line edits, and maybe the addition or deletion of short bits of scene, but really never anything major. For example, my agent thought that Emmie Silvey cursed too much in Daughter of Hounds, so I considered it, decided she was probably right, and toned it down a bit.

And that is how I write a novel. To me, it seems a very organic approach. No one ever taught me how to write a novel, and the closest I can claim to ever having come to trying to learn how it's done was by a) reading lots of novels and b) writing them. Mostly, I feel like it's something I've always known how to do, telling stories at length. Oh, I've definitely improved with practice, but that's just the way of any endeavor, I think. So, whenever the "talent vs. craft" debate comes up, I always wind up in the "talent" camp by default (though it's a pretty dumb debate, and generally I try to avoid it). Mostly, I strive to steer very clear of anything which smacks too much of tedium. I believe that art must be hard, but that if it's tedious, you're probably doing something wrong. Tedium and passion, at least for me, do not go hand in hand, and passion is they key. Oh, and this isn't at all how I wrote comics. That's another story, but not one I wish to go into any time soon.

I know I've left stuff out, mostly the crazy emotional crap, the screaming and yelling, the throwing things. But, give or take, that's how I do it. Don't try this at home.
Tags: writing
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