• Bill

Pantser to Planner to Puzzles

Baby Doe, just published, (and here's the all important link for purchase) was written piece by piece. I talked a lot about it. Imposed early drafts on folks. Even foisted it on a dad who's kid I cared for in the NICU. The dad was an editor in a leading Boston publishing house. I also gave it to a trainee of mine who was a well-published novelist. Unethical on both counts? You bet. But helpful: the publisher asked if I'd ever heard of POV. The novelist gave me a two-page developmental edit. That was around 1986. Obviously the years passed and the novel, originally titled, Products of Conception, (a brilliant and clever title that struck people as baffling, rather than brilliant and clever), received intermittent, but diligent attention while I finished another novel, drafted two others, and wrote short stories. A planner I wasn't, eschewing that approach as tantamount to painting by numbers.

Now I'm humbled. It's been years of revising, proofing, editing, over and over and over again. Not a way to be an author. Writers' write, but productively, with a clear goal, and even deadlines, if they want to become an author.

Lesson learned? You think?

Not exactly. I've read books on how to write novels. You can find these and others in the blog post, Books on Writing.

Here's my takeaway. The schematics help but I've spent too much time figuring some things out, like the difference between the end of Act I and the First Plot Point and the first Pinch Point. I have Plottr but don't use it much. Scrivener is extremely useful as one nears completion of a first draft, and if Michael Chabon, the best fiction writer in the world, likes it, well of course wannabes everywhere should use it.

Outlines, graphs, spreadsheets, time budgets, gurus, expensive courses, and (only) reading good novels are not the paths for this pilgrim, and especially, (lordy!) Coyne's, The Story Grid.

Writing a novel is like learning a game, but not football or playing chess; not a game with an opponent, even yourself. Not crossword puzzles, where you just know that in the Sunday NYTimes you'll never know what the answer is for "garrulous female" in 10 spaces for five across, unless you google it. (For answer, see below. I don't want to lose your attention here).

Here's my two epiphanies:

1. Jigsaw puzzles, minimally 1000 pieces, but with a picture. Obviously to start a novel, you have a picture in your mind, maybe not as clear as the one we were working on tonight--American Gothic by Grant Wood, but a rough idea of a couple of characters and what they might be up against. For example, DiBene, the novel that will follow Baby Doe, takes up the life of Eli Kurz MD, who had a cameo role in the first novel, and in Dibene will become embroiled in a nefarious use of his research.

Scenes appear when you line up pieces by contours, color, linearity, or suggested anatomy. Soon a couple start fitting together. Scribbles, notecards, blackboard. You can even put pieces that look as if they'll eventually go together in plastic baggies or files on Scrivener. Then you work on the borders, and Eureka, the exceeding useful four corners. You may create a series of scenes or plot points by following the pitchfork of the stoic farmer. You get my gist. Before your eyes a partial product, if only a first draft starts to emerge, and the bigger islands of pieces fit together in more aha moments.

As in the above, we (very recently) published authors' like to squeeze the life out of metaphors.

2. Find someone smarter than you are, who does 4000 piece puzzles of abstract art on her dining room table in less than a week without using a picture (like my daughter-in-law, Maria), that is to say a buddy who's a real novelist, who can provide some guidance, i.e., a kick in the pants as well as a keen eye and ear, and a sense of order as the puzzle is put together, piece by piece, until, voila, a first draft appears in six months. At least that's my goal. Can you hear the chuckling in the Empyrean Heights?

("Bablatrice" from First Prize winner Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, Natalie Landers, for Ode to Words, in The Kenyon Review no.4. Fall, 2011)

American Gothic, modified for Covid times:

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