Writing a Novel is Like…
The trope that writing a novel is like giving birth has always irritated me. It’s not like giving birth at all, because when you give birth they give you nice drugs and to write you have to be pretty much sober. And birth, at least in my own experience, doesn’t take years (it only feels that way). But something strange does happen when you are writing a novel. You make up people, you put them in a time and place and you throw a bunch of stuff at them. Sometimes they go off on their own and you let them, thinking “How great. This is so entertaining!” But then, after a while you say, “Hey, who’s in charge around here?” You decide that no, the main character has to do this certain thing here, because after that, this has to happen, and then that has to go wrong, and then he’ll think she did when really she didn’t…Because there’s a Plan.
But she says no.
You ignore her and put her in the scene. You walk her around, tell her what to say and she says it. But you can tell she doesn’t mean it. The other characters look at her quizzically, as if she’s lost her mind or suddenly broken into Swedish. Then they all turn and look at you and say, “Do you have any idea at all what you are doing?”
But you are The Novelist and you say, “Come on, help me out here. Just do this one thing in this scene because…well, you’ll see what happens in the next one. Trust me.”
There is a scene in The Roses Underneath that I rewrote at least 15 times. Not revised, rewrote. I moved the location. I changed the secondary characters. I altered the start, the end, the middle. I changed the entire substance of the scene except for one thing. The scene required Anna to do something she would never do. That action was the whole point of the scene. Because I thought the book needed it. And, I thought she would talk herself into it. But no. And when I tried to make her do it, even Cooper couldn’t get on board. He just kept asking why the whole plot was falling apart.
I finally had to just listen to her.
And once I did, the scene rolled out in one take. It went somewhere completely unexpected and changed the ending of the book. And it didn’t come from me. It came from her. It just happened in front of my eyes and I wrote it down.
Lesson learned. Except, not. The same thing just happened again in the second book, the work in progress. I asked Anna to feel something she would not truthfully feel. And again, I got stuck, trying to funnel her into a plot pipeline I had devised, feeling all clever and diabolical and in control. But she said no. After weeks of trying to convince her, I am giving up.
Instead, I am having a meeting with Anna (in private, so people won’t think I have finally lost it). I think I’ll ask her how she is and how she feels about what’s happening so far. I’ll ask what she’s most afraid of. And what she wants. I’ll listen carefully and then I’ll go back to writing and helping her navigate her world.
Actually, writing is not like giving birth at all. It’s exactly like parenting.