Every year since 2002, I’ve taken on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month. Both Nanowrimo and I have matured a lot over the last 9 years, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my process, particularly since this year, November’s new novel will be followed by December’s start at grad school and January’s Borderlands Press Boot Camp.
Every novelist has their own way of coming to a story. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, said that her first inkling of the 800-page masterpiece was just an image of a man in 18th century clothes who might be connected with magic gone badly wrong. From that she grew plots and subplots, a host of characters and an entire new world.
The first time I did Nanowrimo, I had an entire plot all sketched out. In fact, I had blatantly cheated, having started writing on about October 24th because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take on what seemed to me at the time an impossible challenge. But then, on the night of October 31 (actually in the wee hours of the morning on November 1), my grandmother passed away. The news threw me into a tailspin as I thought about all that had perished with her – the miracle stories, the cryptic mutterings, the trashy magazines. Both sides of my family are all about the matriarch, so we were a body whose head had been removed and we thrashed and spasmed in the throes of her death.
I threw out the entire story I’d written and started over with a story that had been brewing in my mind for years, but I had never gotten enough of a grip on to write down. It was the story of Orpheus, and although I knew how the plot would work, I wasn’t sure where and when it should be set. My grandmother’s death fixed the time and place – Mexico of the 1920s. Over the next month, I wrote frantically, going so far as to give dictation to my not-yet husband as we made the 12-hour drive from San Jose to Phoenix with a 10- and a 2-year-old. I cried as I wrote, I wrote as I cried, I wrote as if the peace of my soul depended on it. I often had no idea from one sentence to the next where I was headed (although, because I was using the familiar material of myth, the plot was already determined), so I just wrote to soothe myself.
I can honestly say that writing has never been so…easy’s not the right word. That novel was many things, but it was never easy. Writing has never been so sure for me since. Because I’ve never had the same combination of a ready-made plot and an emotional need to stave off the specter of mortality, my plots have suffered. The middles sag, the endings come out of nowhere, the beginnings lack snap. Perhaps that’s it! Instead of spending my time trying to plan more – character sketching, world building, plot outlining – maybe all the planning I need to do is to connect with the obituary pages and remember what it felt like to be so desperate to get the words out that I thought I might suffocate if I slowed down.