One Novel at a Time

Tonight: a dilemma.

I am torn between two projects I want to start; one of which is nearly five years old and exists piecemeal in various files, scraps of paper filled with my left-handed chicken scratch, and a notebook (wire bound, college-ruled) filled with scenes, character sketches, and what I like to call questionnaires (more on this later); the other one is a relatively new tale that is complete as a short story, but deserving of a longer format. Decisions, decisions.

Any writer will tell me just pick the one that moves you, that makes you want to get up in the middle of the night and write if you have to. The problem is I am charged about both of them. And a long time ago I learned the hard way that I can only work on one novel at a time. Sure, other writers are capable of penning two or three novels at the same time, and often those novels are all quite good; but I work how I work. One novel at time. Maybe it has to do with being a recovering alcoholic–the whole “one day at a time” thing. Or maybe it’s because I have only one child. Whatever the case, I have to choose. And soon.

The problem I face breaks down further. And here it is: Novel “A” (the five-year-old half-written gem) is essentially a contemporary fantasy story set in our world and one I created (am still creating?), a world in which one family is exiled from, only the protagonist, a young woman, doesn’t remember that world since she was too young when her family fled.

Novel “B” is from a short story I wrote recently this past year. The short story is 20-some pages long, but I felt, once I finished it, that I was only skimming the surface. The tale takes place here, shifting from the past (World War I, the 1940s, and the 1950s) to the present. In the story a scholar wants to obtain a fabled manuscript written by a famed reclusive writer who took up residence in the third floor flat of a home in PA. The scholar’s search leads him to an old woman who knew the writer when she was a young girl. The old woman reveals the source of the dead writer’s inspiration and it is nothing the scholar is prepared for by the story’s end. I rather like the old woman, and her younger self. And the more I thought about it I wanted to write the story from her point of view, rather than from the scholar’s who, as a stranger, is too far removed from the history surrounding the dead writer’s life.

Wow. Did I mention the questionnaires I create for my work? When I am writing notes and brainstorming I often write questions that I feel need answers before I go too far ahead with a novel. It can be anything that comes to mind. Say for example you have a character who is otherwise independent, strong-willed, a regular pillar of the community. What scares him or her? What does this person fear most? Do others know about it? That sort of thing. Well, one of the questions I wrote down while I brainstormed about Novel “B” went something to the effect “Who should tell this story?” I think I just answered my own question.

Come to think of it, I hope Novel “A” can wait a little longer. Novel “B” needs to be written sooner than later. So, I am going to sign off and get back to work. But before I do why don’t you leave me your thoughts about the writing process. Are you an orderly type of writer who has all of his proverbial ducks in a row? Or are you more like me, thriving on the chaos of a more organic approach? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way in any of this.

One more thing: if anyone out there has any tips on researching history of the early 20th century and how it impacted local communities (WWI, the Great Depression, etc) I am all ears…I have a vision where I want Novel “B” to go, and I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on U.S. history; but, like most writers no matter where they fall in the spectrum of experience, I am still learning…Just like I did tonight.

Beautiful Confusion: Outlines and Other Processes

Often people ask me how extensive my outlines are for stories or novels I write. It’s at this moment that I look at them with a blank look, my best Lebowski impression when he’s seated at the desk of the Malibu Police Chief, and ask, “Outline?”

The truth is I am more of the organic type when it comes to creating fiction. In the past I have tried to outline a novel from beginning to end. It felt too…constricting? I blame Gilbert Sorrentino and his novel Mulligan Stew. I read that book years ago (and no I make no claim to have “gotten it”…much the same way with other writers like Pynchon, Cortazar and others). Anyway, I think that’s what planted the seed in me where I let my characters take me on the journey. At least I think that’s what happens. Or maybe it’s some subconscious reaction to being on guided tours when I was a boy.

It helps to know how my story will begin and how it will end. Actually, no. That’s not true. I often don’t know how things will end. I guess that’s the beauty of it. Or the confusion of it. Or maybe the confusing beauty of it? Beautiful confusion? Whatever the case, it works for me.

I have done the journeyman legwork, reading Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces along with a small hill of quality books on fiction writing. I have read good fiction, bad fiction, trashy fiction, you name it. I am a firm believer in learning from it all; either to know what works or what doesn’t. More importantly, I am still learning. Along the way I have written some pretty horrible stories, and some gems I am proud of.

Other writers may be different. Other writers may, right now, have sticky pad sheets or index cards of all shapes, sizes and colors pasted to their walls; or if they are more tech savvy perhaps they use a spreadsheet program or one of those fancy expensive outline programs. None of this is bad. There is really no right or wrong. Writing is a process of discovery. If it was anything else, like brain surgery or plumbing, I would have given up years ago.

The other thing I do is write first drafts in longhand. Call me a dinosaur, but that’s how my mind works. I do jot notes down from time to time, but mostly I like to let it stew a bit before I even put something down on paper.

I would like to hear from other writers. What’s your take? To outline or not to outline? And if you do outline how extensive is it? Or if you’re more like me what’s your process?

Leave a comment. Thanks.