Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Writing lessons

Less than 9,000 words to go on the novel, and I am thinking about some of the things the NaNoWriMo experience has taught me. 

When I started out, I was not sure what I would write about or how I would ever manage to come up with 50,000 words about anything.  I had two basic ideas.  One was a "what if" -- using my mother and her sister as models for the main characters, taking them out of the lives they actually had and setting them free to do what they did best.  The second was more complicated.  Many years ago, I had written a short (and fatally flawed) biography of St. Francis of Assisi (I was a Third Order Franciscan at the time) and something in me was wanting to make him part of the story. 

This was complicated.  I am no longer a Franciscan or even a Christian.  How could I incorporate Francis into the story I had in mind, anyway?  And why on earth would I want to?  So I discarded that idea as idiotic and just started writing.

To my surprise, the story had a mind of its own.  A short way into it, Francis jumped right in and insinuated himself neatly into the story in ways I could never have imagined when I sat down with a pad of paper and tried to plot it out in advance.  My own beliefs were no obstacle, it turns out.  Lesson one: forget plotting it out.  Let the story tell itself.  It's much more interesting that way!

The first characters who showed up were not the ones based on my mother and aunt at all -- they were two women who probably grew out of a number of women, both living and fictional, that I have known over the years.  They turned out to be more important to the plot than I could have guessed when I started.  Lesson two: It may seem irrelevant to the plot when it first appears, but it will be neatly tied in by the end.  Trust me.

I started out just letting the story tell itself in a non-linear way, writing what came to me.  I had no idea what the book was about, or if it would have a central theme at all.  the disparate parts sometimes seemed totally unrelated and I often wondered how I would ever tie them together.  At one point I was convinced I was actually writing two or three entirely different stories that would never mesh, but the whole thing has come together as if I knew where I was going in the first place.   Lesson three: don't worry about the theme.  There is a clear message in there, shining sharp as a laser through the whole thing. 

Maybe my advice to would-be first time novelists should be "Don't worry, be happy," but I know how much Bobby McFerrin hated that song.  It started out as a fun thing he made up for his beloved kids and ended up distracting people from what he was actually trying to accomplish with his music.   You will worry and that's part of the creative stew.  The solutions you need are in the worrying.  They flow out of it and onto the page.  The pain you feel birthing it will be transformed into a better story.

Which leads me to lesson five:  when you create characters, best not to model them on people you actually love a lot because you will have to do things to them that will make you literally weep.  Much easier to do those things to a total stranger you just made up for the purpose!  However much fun it might seem to give your mother a new life she would have loved, no story worth its salt simply skates along on happiness.  Kurt Vonnegut's advice to novelists to write characters people will love and then do the worst thing you can imagine to them will be hard to follow when that character is based on your mom. 

The other thing I have learned is that I can do something I originally felt was impossible.  I took on a dare from good friends and I am so glad I did!  I am not the same person I was before I started writing this story, and I have a new confidence in my ability to follow through on a task, meet a deadline, and come up with something better than I expected. 

Less than 9,000 words to go, and a week to write them.  Three weeks ago that would have seemed an insurmountable task.  Now?  Piece of cake.  Can't wait to see how it ends...

photo credit: MAJ

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