The Long Process of Starting My Novel


I “started” my current novel nearly two years ago, prompted by the fact that I was nearly done with one novel—As the Crow Flies—and by a casual comment my mother made about obituaries. She was scoffing at the bland wording some obituaries used and how little they revealed of the person who had died. I suggested she might want to write her own then, just to be sure the papers got it right. She laughed, said she might, and the conversation moved on. But the thought stuck with me: What if someone wrote her own obituary and revealed something no one in her family knew? Or even better, what if she wrote a memoir, legally contracting with the publisher not to publish it until she had died? And no one could read it, including any members of her family, until it was published. What bombshell might be in that memoir? What a great hook, I thought.

So I tucked the idea away as I worked on my final round of revisions for Crow and then took some time off from novel writing. Yet even while I wasn’t actively writing, the new novel began collecting characters and a shape. Even a title: Driving Rules. Somehow driving was important to it. As I fleshed out the character of the memoir-writing woman who had died, I found myself so taken by her—I patterned her on an older woman I idolized as a teenager—that I couldn’t kill her off before the book even began. I decided she would be in the process of writing her memoir throughout the book, but I didn’t trust myself to make a woman more than twenty years my senior a convincing protagonist. So I gave her a granddaughter. As soon as I did, I understood that they had a special relationship and that the granddaughter is the only one in the family who knows about the memoir. As for driving, the granddaughter is a drifter, just like the character the grandmother created in a series of suspense novels she wrote in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With all that thinking behind me, I decided I was ready to start writing.

I wrote the first chapter three times and still couldn’t get it right. Move on, I told myself, as I frequently tell students and clients. In the next few chapters, I introduced the grandmother’s three children. I hadn’t expected them to have such complicated lives, or that the middle child, a daughter, would be so interesting. And then I realized there were actually four children. Since this was going to be a big family, I had to stop to make a family tree and use a calculator to figure out ages and years of birth, and thumb through my baby name book so at least some of the characters had names. (I still managed to give two characters the same name.)

I was writing in circles, or maybe spirals, and not forward. I went back to the flat first chapter and remembered the first chapter of a book I had begun years ago and put away. That, too, had been about a grandmother and granddaughter, and it began with a terrific first chapter. Well, I could just take that and modify it. After all, when I put that unwritten book away, I kept out all the research I had done on the grandmother’s Victorian house and put it in Crow.

When I started Driving Rules, I thought it would be fun if I too didn’t know what was in the memoir. I’m a believer in discovering what a book is about as it is written. But without knowing that, I didn’t have real motivation for Adeline, the grandmother, to finish the memoir. Last week as I wrote a scene with Adeline in her office composing tweets—I was surprised to discover that she’s mad for Twitter—I suddenly realized what her big secret is. (No, I’m not saying.) Well, that was a relief.

Yet her granddaughter, Beryl, was still formless. She’s twenty-five or so years old, without roots. I understood a lot about her childhood and why that sent her onto the road, but I didn’t know what she’d been doing with herself for the past five years or so. One thing for Adeline to hide a twenty-year-old secret from me; another thing for my young protagonist to be such a mystery.

While on a long walk a few days ago, I let what I knew about Beryl sift through my mind, focusing on her drifting, the driving—and I got it. I knew what she’s been doing with her life. When I returned to the book and the chapter that I had just started, with Beryl lying in bed, reluctant to get up, I put a laptop computer in her hands and had her write a post for the blog she maintains that none of her friends and family know about. Obviously, I am creating a family of secrets.

This has been a roundabout start to the novel. I’m not sure I’ve written one before that has had such fits and starts, so many dead ends, so many “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time” moments when a character or plot device hasn’t worked out. Yet I’ve seen students’ and clients’ novels turn on their heads. One student started a novel about a sixteen-year-old girl and then realized it was really about the girl’s grandmother. (Something about grandmothers these days.) Another student thought she was writing a memoir about an experience she had in college, but discovered that was too limiting and it really needed to be a novel. Ginny DeLuca, who has just published her novel, As If Women Mattered, began the book with fascinating backstories about her four main characters. As she wrote and rewrote, the book distilled to its necessary essences, with the backstories cut to only essential bits. Another woman I know wrote a short story—that is now the beginning of a novel.

There is no one right way to begin a novel, no one right way to write one. And what worked with one of my books, I have found, might not work with the next one. I am certain Driving Rules will survive its haphazard genesis, that its foundation will be strong, and that I am going to have a great deal of fun writing it. And rewriting it.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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