Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How to Write a Novel--or Not

I've been reading a lot of raves lately for Scrivener Publishing Software--apparently it allows you to write a document in chunks, lay them out in any order, integrate in various ways, and get an overview whenever you want. You can keep track of chapters, scenes, page numbers, etc.Other writers have been using Excel for those same features for a long time. I'm bumfuzzled. By the time I figured all that out (I don't master new software easily), plotted out the scenes, etc., I suspect I could have written the novel twice. I am also puzzled by story boards, white boards, etc. where people keep track of each scene and character. Too much trouble.
It's probably the reason I'm a minor novelist at best, but I just sit down and write. Granted, I have a very rough outline--maybe a page of handwritten disconnected notes--before I begin. But then it's important to me to get a first sentence that gives me some momentum and propels me into the story. I may go back and rewrite that opening ten times, but it gets me going.
And then as new ideas occur to me--they appear all the time as I write--I think, "Hmmm, if this happens, I have to go back and change that." The find function in Word does that for me. When I get all through I read for plot inconsistencies--and find many--among other things. And off it goes to a beta reader, who will find more inconsistencies and problems.
I'm trying to be a storyteller, not to write belles lettres, let alone the Great American Novel. But I will always remember the examples of two Western storytellers I was privileged to know. One was Dorothy Johnson--if you're old enough, you may remember A Man Called Horse, The Hanging Tree, or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Dorothy had a long career in New York and was there during WWII. After she returned to her native Montana, she worked on a novel, never published, called "The Unbombed," about New York's preparations for the enemy bombs that never hit the city. Once she wrote me that she'd just had a terrible shock: she'd just found out that the man she thought was going to be the hero of the novel was going to be killed in the war. Would that have happened with Scrivener or Excel? Somehow I think not.
And Elmer Kelton always preached to listen to your characters and they'll tell you what's going to happen. He started out to write a novel about a buffalo soldier--it became The Wolf and the Buffalo--and he incorporated a Comanche chief as a minor character. But the more he wrote, the more that Comanche demanded equal time, until the novel paralleled the disappearing lifestyle of the Comanche and the rising circumstances of the buffalo soldier, once a slave. In another instance, he sat at the bedside of his dying father and began to write about his father's young cowboying days, and, to paraphrase, as he wrote the characters took hold of the story like a horse takes the bit in its teeth and ran away with it. The words--and the tears--flowed. That became The Good Old Boys, adapted for TV by Tommy Lee Jones. Both are among the classic works of Kelton's large canon.
To me, that lesson about listening to your characters is about spontaneity in storytelling. It just doesn't happen if yoiu have all those moveable scenes and chapters and characters. A story flows--or it doesn't.
In a way I envy my fellow storytellers who can use these programs to plot--it must make the first draft a lot less painful. But they don't have the fun that I recently did of getting almost to the end of a novel still wondering how it was going to turn out, who is the villain, who the victim? And then--Eureka.
I think I'm old-fashioned.

1 comment:

Babette Fraser Hale said...

I don't think what you describe is old fashioned. Surely no one actually writes with Excel. Storyboards and white boards, Excel, etc. might be helpful in organizing scenes at some point, but generation of the fiction is organic, as you and Elmer describe. One of my novels, the most recent (still with the NY agent), I wrote, then outlined, then revised and found that most of the outlined material where segues seemed so logical didn't work at all when the subtleties of the scenes were taken into account.