Monday, December 10, 2007

Why a Novel is Like a Maze

As I toil through my novel-writing, it's occurred to me why so many people claim to want to write novels but never get around to it--and why it's so darn difficult. Writing a novel is like navigating a maze.

Think about it. You construct detailed characters who go in directions you never intended them to go in. You write pages and pages of plot only to find the path you've chosen is a dead end. A path you passed ages ago now looks much more promising, if only you can find your way back to it. And--wouldn't you know--you seem to have forgotten to bring your magical golden thread to help you find your way back. Soon your characters have ditched you to wander about on their own, refusing to do as you say, and you're helplessly lost in a mess of your own devising.

I wouldn't say I'm highly qualified to give advice--I'm well known for clear-cutting the whole maze and starting over at inopportune times. This is more like advice to myself. Advice that anyone else who's lost in a maze might benefit from, too.

Know your characters. Where your plotting skills falter, a strong character should be able to take over. If you know your characters well, you should know their behaviors when confronted with any situation. You should hear their voices in your head, see them in your mind's eye, and be able to pick them out of any crowd. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes when I'm stuck on a plot detail I turn to whatever character I'm working with, and I ask them: what do you think about this? Then I close my eyes and write whatever comes to mind, without judging. This works surprisingly well.

Just keep making things worse. Part of knowing your characters is knowing what would be the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to them. What is their deepest desire or motivation--and how can you really screw with their world? First, boil your character down to their one essential motivation: maybe your heroine just wants to be loved, or your hero just wants to stay in control. Then take what they want away: separate her from everyone she loves, or put him in a position where he's completely lost control of events.

When you're stuck for a plot detail, think to yourself: "how can I make this situation even worse?" The answer may vary depending on which character you're dealing with.

Before you hit that delete key, take a breather. Sometimes we just get so lost in the maze that we want to take a big chainsaw and start hacking away. But before you start deleting your work, stop and think. What seems hopeless and horrible today could look pretty decent--or at least salvageable--once your frustration has subsided. Make a deal with yourself: you will give it a day before you delete anything big. Or maybe a week. Sometimes I need a week.

Have a little faith. Sometimes it's the most unlikely path that leads to the center. Have faith in your own imagination. Have faith in your characters--they may know where you're going, even if you don't. If you see yourself getting lost, stop and skip to the next scene you feel fairly sure about. Try to stay on the train of thought you've set for yourself, and worry about the details later. Remember: it doesn't matter if your first draft smells to high heaven, as long as you have one. Perfectionists wind up being literary critics, not writers.

Like a maze, a novel presents us with endless choices: turn right or left? Kill off the heroine's first love or make him stick around? Even the tiniest little wrong turn can get you hopelessly lost. But have faith and follow your characters down every path they take, and hopefully you'll come out on the other side--with a finished manuscript.

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