How to Write a Novel in 20 Years or More
On December 19, 2009 | 3 Comments | Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Blood and Loam is on its last draft. Well, at least until (hopefully) some agent picks it up and demands some rewrites. For the first time since I started to toy with the idea more than 20 years ago, I am proud to say that I am close to finishing. I could call this post “How Not to Write a Novel,” but I believe, looking back on the process, that a unique perfection exists with every book. Some take a few months to write–I wrote When a Grandchild Dies in a few months, then spent another year or so revising. Patchwork & Ornament, which I edited, went from idea to printed book in about nine months.

Then there’s Blood and Loam, the book that wouldn’t leave, that wouldn’t end, that I have thrown in the trash more often than I care to think about. Here’s the story:

Somewhere in the late 1980s, I began a story about a confused, traumatized young woman who takes a profound inner journey in order to defeat a force of evil that threatens the survival of her Midwestern small town. I didn’t know anything about writing a novel, but I started anyway. Since my villain has supernatural powers, I researched dark arts, squirming all the while. When I had about 75 pages done, I signed up for a creative writing class to get some help and feedback. Sounds good, right? Well, not so much.

Mistake #1 – Showing a draft too soon, or to people you don’t yet know you can trust. We were assigned to share the first 25 pages for critique. Most of the feedback was helpful and positive, but apparently my manuscript hit some nerves with the teacher. She went into a long lecture about my protagonist’s lack of believability, and my protagonist was the one character somewhat based on me. Oops. I translated that into I am not believable. I came home and threw everything away.

Mistake #2 – Further with that, basing a character or story on oneself. Beginning novelists often do this. When, several years later, the idea for the novel kept buzzing around my head like a fly, I made sure my protagonist had her own appearance and totally different backstory. The Stella of my novel is her own person now.

Mistake #3 – Fighting the Genre. Blood and Loam is a dark, violent, creepy novel. I wanted to write a nicer book, and there is nothing nice about Blood and Loam. For many years, I worried about whether this novel would contribute to or detract from a society that already has so much violence in it. Over time, I’ve learned through personal experience that sometimes our greatest growth occurs in traumatic situations, and that sometimes life is messy, dark, and even violent as we forge our way through them. Stella is on a classic Hero’s Journey, and she has some big obstacles to overcome–the fact that she does helps me justify, in my mind at least, that B&L ultimately contributes something positive. (You might notice that I’m still touchy about this!) I believe we should write our ideas, no matter how much they bother us. Otherwise we do not honor the spirit of creativity that lies within us.

Mistake #4 – Not writing regularly. Any novelist will tell you that the best thing to do is to put the story on paper as quickly as possible. Stops and starts are painful. ‘Nuff said.

Mistake #5 – See Mistake #1. Yep, I did it again. I rewrote, took a novel writing class, and got scared yet again. I didn’t have a bad critique, but I wasn’t as far along as some of the other students, and I felt intimidated by their skills.

Mistake #6 – Not getting work critiqued when it’s ready. Conversely, there comes a point when we’re drafting when we might start to chase our tails. In my case, I found myself tweaking single words while ignoring some major plot problems. Given my history with critiquing, that’s understandable, but there came a point when I knew I needed outside feedback. I found it through a Gotham Writers Workshop class, and then by hiring a published author to provide a manuscript critique.

Mistake #7 – Not knowing how to let go. These characters have been with me for a long time now, and they feel a bit like one big, happy, dysfunctional family. We hang out together, and while terrible things happen when we do, we keep coming back. I’ve always related to Stella, even though she is not me. Stella represents some of the mistakes of my younger years about which I have continued to feel shame and guilt. Yet I have grown more into the character of Hannah, who, in the Hero’s Journey, represents the Mentor. I’m not nearly as calm and peaceful as Hannah, but I have come to know a thing or two over the years.

So here I am, letting go of Stella as part of my identity. Letting go, finally, of the person I once was, and haven’t been for many years. Embracing the inner wise woman, the Hannah who came out of nowhere, who is totally made up. Perhaps I gave myself the gift of Hannah as a character because I needed her; now I am her.

I’ve been reading a biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I learned that it took him more than 20 years to write 100 Years of Solitude. He says, quite simply, that he wasn’t ready for the book when he was younger. It was too big for him at the time. This statement, from a great master, reminds me that books come in their own time. We as authors sometimes have to have our own journeys in order to understand how to complete them. B&L has, for me, been a journey that is long, powerful, and deep. Which leads me to:

Mistake #8 – Forgetting why we write. I had forgotten that, for me, inner growth is the goal. In finishing, in letting go of these characters, I am opening myself up to new stories, new possibilities, new adventures, new challenges to ponder and work through. As 2009 comes to a close, so too do my adventures in a fictional small town in Iowa that I have grown to love. I shed this skin and emerge anew.

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