a deceptively simple question

In the forum Dianne asked a question that at first had me flummoxed. She asked: what is the process of writing a novel?

The first thing that went through my mind was that the question couldn’t be answered. It’s a little bit like asking how do you build a house?. I don’t know much about building, but I would answer this question if I had to: You do the research and make a plan. You get the materials together. You start work. You keep at it. When you’re done, you wait to see if it is actually livable, and if somebody might want to live in it.

If you ask a builder this question, you’re likely to get a reaction much like my response to Dianne’s question: too big. Can’t answer it.

The comparison (writing a novel : building a house) is valid in some ways and not in others. In both cases, something is created that wasn’t there before, but then this is also true of tuna on rye, or planting a garden. A novel or a building are meant to have some permanence, of course. They may last a long time or fall into ruin quite quickly. You can work from somebody else’s plan to build a house; you can take a standard plot and tell a story. In this case, the quality of the final product will have to do with attention to detail and workmanship. You can play with form and confound expectation by telling a story in some way that’s rarely done; you can build a house that looks like an inverted pyramid (or at least, you can try).

The big difference is that to build a house you most probably need the help of other people. Even if you’re capable of building a cabin by yourself, you will probably depend on various utilitiy companies to make the place warm and light, to bring in water and take out waste.

A novel is the creation of an individual, built on a lifetime of experience and stories heard in multiple contexts. You can’t farm parts or aspects out to contractors.

Because a novel isn’t a physical thing, the restrictions on how you go about it are few. You don’t have to take the laws of physics into consideration. And this is why it’s really impossible to describe the process of writing a novel. I can describe my process, but I know for a fact that everybody approaches this task in their own way.

Some people plan extensively. They use spreadsheets to break down storylines into chapters and scenes. At the other extreme, some people start with a character and a line of dialog.

I don’t have a standard way of coming to a story. I like the process of reimagining an older story, as I did for Cooper’s The Pioneers, but I also like starting from scratch, as I have done three times (Homestead, Tied to the Tracks, Pajama Jones).

The one constant I do have is this: I draw diagrams and sketch and jot down notes. Characters, and how they relate to each other, houses they live in, lists of the things a particular character has in his or her glovebox, the trees they see every day. My own process is very visual and I need the mind-eye-hand connection.

So I usually start with a lot of information, but some of that (sometimes a lot) will change in the early stages of writing, when the characters are still getting to know each other and me. And then I feel my way. From scene to scene, from dialog to dialog. I have a general idea where things will end up, but how I’ll get there? Usually no idea at all, to start with.

The hardest part is keeping with it and I’m sorry to say, that never gets easy. In my experience, every novel is harder than the one before.