Published in the Rains County Leader On August 9, 2016:
I mentioned last November that I was participating in National Novel Writing Month, an annual event during which writers around the world commit to write 50,000 words in thirty days. At the time, I had been working on a project for a while but had only managed to write a little over 6,000 words. I am a voracious reader of mystery novels, but with the exception of three short stories, one of which was written when I was sixteen years old, I had never written anything but non-fiction. I was intimidated by the process, but I decided to use the motivation and peer pressure of what writers call NaNoWriMo to focus my keyboard time on my first novel.
At the end of the month, I was a few thousand words short of my goal, but I was far enough into the project to know that I had to finish it. In the last eight months, I’ve expanded my manuscript to 83,000 words and forty-eight chapters. I’m still a chapter or two short of typing The End, but I thought I’d share a few of the many things I’ve learned about writing a novel.
- Fiction requires a lot of research, especially if you’re writing about something outside your realm of experience. My cousin who is an attorney is no longer surprised when I message her with a legal question, and a friend who is a former policeman is not fazed when I corner him at church to question him about law enforcement procedures.
- Characters write themselves. I had heard other authors say this, but I didn’t really understand until it happened in my story. Originally, my female main character was named Tanya, but every time I started to write it, I had to think about it because Tatia was the name that came into my mind. I finally gave in and changed her name, and she was content after that. Sometimes, as I write dialogue or actions, the character involved will tell me, I wouldn’t say – or do – that. I’ve also learned that, when your characters have nothing more to say, it’s probably time to begin a new chapter.
- I learned what it means to become really engrossed in a project. Friday afternoon, I was working on a scene that I could see in my mind, but I was having trouble writing it. The words finally began to flow, and I was really into it until my character began to plan what she was having for dinner. I stopped and thought, Do I need to be cooking right now? It took me a few minutes to get reoriented to the real world – what time of day it was, what meal plans I had already made, and even what day it was.
- I read a blog recently by a fellow author who said that it’s okay to stare into space because daydreaming is part of a writer’s job. That was a relief.
- I first learned this principle in writing non-fiction, but it’s even truer when you’re making the story up as you go alone. Ideas about how to fix a problem come at the most unexpected moments – in the shower, while working in the garden, or during the pastor’s message. Sorry Pastor Jason.
- I learned what real panic feels like – when Word freezes and/or shuts down when you’re in the middle of a climactic scene. This has happened more than once, but so far, the most I’ve lost is a few paragraphs.
- I learned to save – often!
- I learned what the editor of my first book meant when she said, “Sometimes you have to kill off your darlings.” Most readers have probably had the experience of reading a section of a book and thinking, Okay, and your point is? Even the most amazing scenes have to be deleted if they don’t go anywhere.
- You can’t write a novel and have a successful garden at the same time. I planted late, weeded maybe three times, and waited way too long to start watering every day. We had ten or twelve really nice tomatoes, about that many cucumbers, a few squash, and three or four messes of okra. I’ve given the purple hulls over to the deer and everything else to the weeds, but I have an almost complete manuscript, so I’m happy.
- Finally, I learned that if you try to write while O’Reilly is talking about the Democratic National Convention, you may put too many syllables in “acquaintances.”
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD: A Caregiver’s Tale of Life, Love, and Chaos