The subject for this blogging cycle is the corn maze of writing, or how often our plans for our novels get hijacked by characters who refuse to adhere to our initial plans for them. Sound like raising kids? It kind of is. One of my friends once attended a parenting class in which the instructor passed out plants. “You’ve got a fern,” she said to the first mom. “And you’ve got a cactus,” she told dad number two. “Every plant is different. They require different things from you and no matter how much you wanted a daisy, you got a rose with thorns. Your job is to adapt.”
In writing, when I start a novel, I’m thinking at the level of plants. I’m quite happy at that point if I can see the forest for the trees. I have assumptions about people in general and a think about my characters as somewhat generic, somewhat predictable people.
At this stage, they’re like infants, somewhat uniform creatures whose needs are the same the world over. As they grow up, or as I begin to figure out who they are, they start to differentiate themselves. All good, all part of the process.
Except, just like kids, they can surprise the hell out of you. Just like kids, they can derail what seemed like a sensible plan. As they take on definition, they begin to stubbornly hold out for the very thing you didn’t even know they wanted. (You didn’t even know anyone would want such things.) You find yourself backtracking, rewriting, throwing out large sections and scrapping grand ambitions. It’s painful. It’s irritating. Most of all, it feels like you wasted your time. Like if you’d just known better, you could have prevented all that and gotten the story right the first time.
The only consolation I can offer is that such push and pull between the left brained “helicopter” vision of an initial idea and the intuitive process of putting oneself into the body and brain of an imaginary (but also real) person is, I believe, inevitable. Better yet, knowing it all ahead of time might just ruin the book. After all, some really famous writer whose work I love but whose name, gender, era and genre I’ve forgotten said “If you aren’t surprised, your readers won’t be either.”
In my process, there've been facets of each of my protagonists that kept evading me. In EVERY ONE SHE LOVED, I knew what kind of car each character would drive from the get go. Except for Lucy, who is, arguably, the central character of the novel. She’s an artist and bed-and-breakfast owner. She’s raising her murdered best friend’s daughters and trying not to crush on their bereaved dad, whom she’s known since college. In that story, I didn’t figure it out what kind of car went with Lucy’s personality until I’d written several drafts and gotten to the end of the book. And when I got my answer, I also knew exactly what was going to happen that would pull all of my loose ends into place.
In DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN, I knew Diana’s younger son would have a gift with numbers, but I couldn’t see how that would play into the story. And I truly didn’t know what would happen at the end. Would Diana leave her overbearing husband despite his threats to ruin her children’s lives if she did? Would her eldest son, Humphrey, a handsome teen who spent way too much time nurturing his mother the only way he knew how (by helping her with housework, cooking, sewing and making things nice) would Humphrey turn out to be gay or straight? This is a question he’s not dared to ask himself, having a stepfather whose masculinity announced itself in cruelty. I won’t spoil the ending by saying how things worked out, but it would finally come to me three years into the writing process that William’s gift with numbers would unlock several plot levers, cascading in an ending where these two questions are finally answered. This trait of William’s, which nagged at me because I couldn’t see its use, this too finally revealed its importance only at the end of my third working draft.
Writing a novel requires a whole lot of patience, a whole lot of hope that things will turn out eventually. As Don DeLilo put it ( or was it Walker Percy?) writing is like driving at night in the woods. You can only see a few feet ahead of you at any given time. It also requires confidence in the intuitive part of one’s self, while the linear, logical part of the brain recoils at the disorder and the unanswered questions.
It is so easy to give into despair, but to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, “The greatest threat to creativity is crippling self-doubt.”
And so it goes. Now I’m working on a book that’s taken me far too long, with far too many characters, all of whom are surprising me daily, but many of whom have begun to spill their secrets, uniting seemingly disparate parts of the plot into a more cohesive whole. This novel will be quite long, perhaps 800 pages. It will be quite complex.
Despite the recent success of long, complex novels like THE GOLDFINCH and THE LUMINARIES, my process still requires staggering leaps of faith in characters who – like children – insist on finding their own path, ditching my map for the thrill of the chase and the scent of treasures that they, not I, must find.
So the corn maze? Think of the zigs as the left brain and the zags as the right. Both are necessary, both take us in different directions. At least, that’s the case for me. How about you?
Sheila Curran wrote DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN (Berkley, Penguin USA, 2005) and EVERYONE SHE LOVED (Atria, Simon & Schuster, 2009) and is presently working on a book set in Atlanta.