Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Novel Detour

The reason for my absence from here: I’ve been working on a new novel, the first I’ve started since finishing my MFA three years ago. What I decided to do differently this time is largely about process, avoiding the pitfalls of my past forays into the novel. I think the MFA practice was useful because it forced me to think about producing writing, if not every day, at least weekly. My practice now is to write for at least one hour every day, usually in the morning. The goal is to produce at least two manuscript pages (or about 500 words), but on really productive days, I can write three times that amount. I find that the discipline, even in the face of limited inspiration, will yield results. After all, the daily production, since it is part of a larger piece, doesn’t necessarily have to make it into the novel. Since August 8th I’ve written perhaps 200 pages (The actual number is about 20,000 words per month; that’s two, fifty page legal pads per month--I’m just enough of a Luddite to write long hand). The ultimate goal is to produce a 100,000 word draft of the novel which I hope to have by the end of November. Then I’ll undertake the long effort of taking it apart, re-writing, re-shaping, and structuring the novel.

An hour per day. That’s it. I can work more on it if I want, but I often find I’ve said my piece in the bit of writing I did and I don’t want to force it. On some days, it is hard work, there is a feeling of forcing it. But sometimes even that bit of writing can lead to some new angle on character.

I came to this approach from writing short stories more or less religiously over the past three years. In my process for a short story, I came up with an interesting idea and explored it in writing. I wouldn’t usually rework the draft until I had a quantity (usually two or three thousand words, maybe more) to work with. I’m counting on this with the first draft of the novel. After a few weeks I find I’ve forgotten what I wrote a month ago, and I’m often surprised by where it takes me.

So much about being a writer is, like any job, “showing up”--I’m sure this sounds like the most obvious comment, but it’s true. You have to face the blank page every day and begin to put words down, however arduous, however difficult. What finally made me decide to work on a novel is that an interesting idea from a short story I had written suggested it, and once I began writing, a series of characters came to life. Once characters are in my head, they usually won’t go quietly.