The Birth of a Novel
Part 3: Letting the Story Out
The story that snuck up on you, and now occupies your daily thoughts, has bloomed into a detailed outline. It may be ten or a hundred pages long, but you’re eager to move on to the next stage of your adventure. The outline writing process helped you in several ways.
First, you squirreled away pockets of time (that you didn’t know you had) for writing in your busy life. Perhaps you’ve glimpsed the truth that, for a writer, writing is not a burden but a necessity. It’s compelling to breathe life into a story, and sometimes the story breathes life into us.
Second, you see that your story has an existence of its own. You’ve wrangled with the plot, mapped out major scenes, thought through what will happen, as well as when, where, and why, and have met many of your characters.
Third, the themes, tone and mood of your story are now tangible. You’ve considered whether this will be literary fiction — driven by the characters’ internal development — or commercial fiction — driven by action and events. The first chapter beckons.
It’s very helpful to have a permanent place where you can work and keep your papers, but if you don’t there is always the public library. It’s ideal to have a notebook computer or laptop (and earphones and music), so you can work on the move, but if you don’t there is always paper and pen. War and Peace was written by hand, so don’t be deterred by logistics. When the muse taps you on the shoulder, be ready. When she doesn’t tap you on the shoulder, sit down and start writing anyway. Maybe she’s the one who needs a tap.
Your skills and concentration will develop with use, so if you feel inadequate to the task in the beginning, ignore it. We’re all inadequate in the beginning! Think about the story instead. The more persistent your efforts are, the better you’ll concentrate, and the more easily you’ll be able to walk into that other dimension when you have time. You’re in for some exquisite surprises.
You know generally what will take place in the first chapter, so can you imagine the opening scene? Of course you can. Let it envelope you. Just go there. Write down everything you see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and think. Capture the whole scene in detail. You’ll rewrite later, so don’t get caught up in perfecting word choices at this point.
Going there is the magic of fiction writing. One minute you’re thinking about the scene and the next minute you’re in it. The more you can immerse yourself, the more compelling your writing experience will be. You’ll sit inside the characters and feel their emotions, their clothes and their physical bodies. You’ll hear their voices when they speak. You’ll look out their windows and hear the traffic in their neighborhoods. What colors do you see? What do you smell? What are they thinking? What are their mannerisms and facial expressions? Who’s apprehensive or suspicious, bombastic or meek, witty or supercilious? How do they move? Show, don’t tell.
Think of writing as your escape, rather than a burden on your already busy life. The more often you write, the easier it will be to pick up where you left off.
As your characters become more familiar to you, so will their psychologies. Although you have ideas about them when you begin, because you have a solid outline, you are not yet intimate with them. As the manuscript develops you will imbue the characters with history, motivations and idiosyncrasies — or, I should say, they will make these known to you. If you want to understand something, write about it.
At a writer’s conference last year I met John Lescroart, prolific author of international bestsellers. When I asked him about his process, he told me that every day he “just” writes one scene. I was reminded of Gertrude Stein’s reply when asked how much time she spent writing every day. “Oh, half an hour,” she said. “But I spend every other hour getting ready for that half hour.”
Next segment: Rewriting.
Jennifer Dwight worked as a litigation paralegal, trainer and author for 33 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has presented seminars, written and published numerous articles, a 60-segment fiction serial (The Dissemblance of Marie Mirabeau), short stories and three paralegal books (The Nuts & Bolts of Civil Litigation Practice, The Indispensable Paralegal During Discovery and Law Firm Life for the Legal Assistant). Her suspense novel, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, will be published in May, 2016 by She Writes Press. She welcomes comments through her website, www(dot)authorjenniferdwight(dot)com.