To begin our month, I want you to answer the following questions for yourself. I encourage you to take out your notebooks and put pen to paper or to open a new document and type out the answers. You will get so much more from this exercise if you write out the answers rather than simply thinking about them.
By this I mean your actual practice of writing. Do you write daily? Weekly? In intense bursts and then not at all? Have you been practicing steadily for years, or is this all new to you?
There is no right or wrong way. What there is, though, is room for growth and intention. So . . .
Remember that even though writing is often difficult, you’re doing it because you’re called to, so you might as well make the time feel special. A pot of tea, a candle, a favorite pair of slippers, a clean desktop, a certain album playing, a seat in your favorite café . . .
Do you want to take a walk around the block before you settle in? Do you need to stash your cellphone out of reach or unplug your modem? Find out what makes you feel refreshed and ready to focus and give yourself a few minutes to prepare.
By this I do not mean where you want to be in your novel. If all goes as planned—and I truly think it will—you will be in a good place with your novel, totally immersed in it, by the end of the month. But so much relies on your dedication to the course, and by extension (and most importantly), your dedication to your own regular practice of working on your book. Once again, there is no correct answer. My hope is that once you experience writing almost daily for this class, you’ll find what works best for you—what time of day, what duration of time, what frequency—and will be prepared to keep it up once you’re finished.
Maybe you are just beginning your novel. Maybe you have a full draft and are ready to set it aside and reimagine your story. Wherever you are in the process, these questions are essential.
Before reading more, answer this question with whatever comes to mind, big or small, specific or abstract.
Now, consider these elements (and know that it is absolutely fine if many of them are not yet clear to you):
Who are your characters?
What are the main settings?
What big themes, ideas, or questions are you exploring?
What is the main conflict?
Going forward, keep this page nearby. Pin it to your wall, or keep it open on your computer, or tuck it into your notebook to access easily. Your list of knowns and unknowns will grow longer and more complicated as the month goes on—and that is a good thing! And you will also have incredible bursts of clarity—and that will be a good thing, too.
Imagine you wanted to draw a portrait but you couldn’t see your paper, didn’t know the top of the page from the bottom, or how narrow or wide it was. How could you even begin to sketch it out?
Today I want you to consider your novel’s equivalent to that sheet of paper: The beginning, the end, and the space in between. Before those of you who never plan your endings panic, I’m not saying that you need to know what happens at the end, nor do you need to determine your characters’ fates. But I do want you to know when the ending takes place in relation to when the story begins.
A novel that begins at a character’s birth and lasts until her death is very different from a novel that begins in the morning and ends on the evening of that same day. Plotting a novel that spans one week is a much different process from plotting a novel that spans years. And preparing to write a novel with huge leaps through time is quite different from preparing for one that follows a character closely and consistently through a shorter period.
Know that nothing you decide now is set in stone. It is your best guess for your story based on what information you have at this early stage. But making a decision—even if it changes later—will give you that sheet of paper with all of its edges so that you know where to place your pencil when you start to sketch.
Here are your questions.
*Note: Victor LaValle has some fascinating insights to share about the beginning of his novel The Changeling and how he altered the timeframe in order to get the story right. You can read it here: https://www.guernicamag.com/victor-lavalle-fairy-tales-redux/
Let’s skip the part where you make a list of all of your character’s likes and dislikes, quirks and habits. Don’t get me wrong—it isn’t that those things are not important. They do so much to bring your character to life, to make her recognizable and distinct. But you don’t need me for that. And I often find it best to have those elements of character reveal themselves to you as you write and see your characters engage with, and bump up against, their worlds.
I want to look deeper. Today, I want you to access your character’s memory, her history, her entirely subjective experience of her own life.
I want you to identify some defining moments in her life. They can be objectively monumental (a divorce, a death) or they can be only personally so (a shift in understanding, a quiet betrayal, a moment of pure joy).
List around five of them now, and make enough notes about each to create a full picture. You don’t need to write any scenes. (Spoiler: That will come tomorrow.) But figure out all the context that you can. Include who was there, when and where it happened, and how it felt.
Tip: Remember that this is all from your character’s perspective. You do not need to worry about the objective truth.