where the writers are
Novel 101-Prep Work

So, I've spent the past week working on my next novel. But I haven't added even one word to the document. No, I'm not outlining; I haven't gone over to the darkside or anything, and I am thinking about my characters andtheir story (because, that's who it belongs to. Them not me.). But, I'm trying to do some prep work, so that when I do sit down with a new pen and a stack of fresh, crisp yellow legal pads, I can leap into the ZONE.

So, with no further ado . . .

1.) Planning Backwards. In my previous life as an English teacher, I learned to approach each new unit with the main question: what do I want my students to know/understand/be able to do at the end of this unit? And once I had that answer(s), I knew where to start and how to plot out my lessons. When I started All the Numbers, I knew I had to get Ellen to that dock at the lake, tossing James' ashes into the wind and letting go of her grief and rage. So, I've spent lots of time thinking about my main characters--where do I want them to be at the end of the book. I'm not worrying about the nuts and bolts of how I'll get them there, that'll happen as the journey progresses, but I want an image to write towards. Last night I came up with a "controlling question" which is, Who are Maggie and Jim and Grandma Foley going to become in a world without Rosie? As I think about that in the days to come, I have to believe their characters will fall into place.

2.) Taking my Waking Slow (with apologies to Theodore Roethke). Some of my very best writing comes when I'm still in bed and barely awake. I love it. I'm still in somewhat of a dreamlike state and my mind wanders freely. Total stream-of-consciousness. And I've learned to embrace that time--whether it's 5 minutes or a half hour. It's a time when an idea will pop up and I'm able to let it float to see if it has legs. This morning the image formed of Jim walking the dark streets when he can't sleep, walking for hours in the middle of the night. And I realized that Maggie had been adopted and suddenly is curious about her birth mother. Now, I'm not sure where these musings will lead, but I've jotted them down in my notes. And in mornings to come I know these snapshots will either become more fully developed or fade away. But I get to practice before I sit down to write. And because of it, when I do put pen to paper I'll much more easily slip into the zone, that wonderful rhythm in writing when the story and characters lift me up and take me to their world and I'm simply recording their story rather than directing it or forcing it.

3.) Starting at the Very Beginning. In July 2004, I attended a week-long workshop on "Your First Twenty Pages." Along with directly leading to my being offered representation and ultimately selling my manuscript to Random House, I finally understood the importance of those first pages, that all-important first chapter. Amy made mention of this when she commented about my last Novel 101 post. This is your reader's entry into the world you've created. Characters are introduced, conflicts are hinted at, voices are established. If your reader, reviewer, editor doesn't make it past the first chapter, your book is dead in the water. With that in mind, all week I've been pulling books off my bookshelves and reading first chapters. Reading slowly. Reading to take notes. These are all books I've read and know and love. So I'm looking to see what is suggested or insinuated in those first few pages. How am I pulled in without my even knowing? And how might I do the same in my first chapters. What needs to be told? What can wait?

Here are the books currently stacked next to me on the sofa--Judith Guest'sOrdinary People, Elizabeth Berg's True to Form, Anna Quindlen'sBlessings, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster, Anne LeClaire's Entering Normal, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

So, that's where I am right now. Planning, reading, and falling in love with these characters.