Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Years ago, I participated in a symposium called “Women and Popular Culture” at Brown University. In the morning, I sat on a panel with two other novelists. In the afternoon, professors presented talks on the depiction of women in film, TV shows and music videos. One professor analyzed a rock music video, claiming it was a meditation on Christianity because of all its “cross” imagery: the singer’s crossed arms, a crucifix-shaped earring, the X-shaped intersection of two spotlight beams. The speaker went on and on about how the people who created the video were making a subliminal religious statement. When she said this, one of the novelists from my morning panel muttered, “Or else they were all high on cocaine when they were filming it and they said, ‘Hey, that looks cool!’”

I was reminded of that comment recently when a friend sent me a link to a writing coach’s dissection of Karen Stockett’s novel, The Help. The essay explained the book’s phenomenal popularity by breaking it into scenes and beats and showing how Stockett had constructed her novel with the plot’s first turning point occurring exactly one-fifth of the way into the story, and each chapter containing a specific and uniform number of scenes, and so on. I couldn’t get through the essay because I was laughing too hard. For all I know, the writing coach may have conceded later in the essay that The Help’s huge success had something to do with its being a beautifully written book about a group of smart, sympathetic women who change the world for the better. But he was obsessed with the precise, mechanical composition of the story.

Perhaps some authors create their novels the way these academicians seem to think we do: Graphing the turning points to make sure they’re exactly one-fifth, one-half, and three-fourths of the way through the story. Counting the beats. Inserting symbolic imagery at regular intervals.

But that’s not the way I write.

I’m a sculptor, not an engineer. For me, the process is intuitive. It’s possible that my stories have their turning points located exactly where a calculator says they should be, but if so, this happens purely by chance. I don’t write with a straight-edge and a compass. I write the way a sculptor creates a statue, kneading and molding, chiseling away this part and slapping some more clay on that part, then stepping back to assess what I’ve created and thinking, “Hmm, it needs something more here and something less there,” or “I like the way that part is shaped,” or, if I’m very lucky, “Hey, that looks cool!” (I should add that cocaine plays no part in this process. )

My next book, Good-Bye To All That, has five point-of-view characters. I start a new chapter each time I enter a different character’s point of view. When I was writing the manuscript, I never counted the chapters and tallied whose turn it was or how many pages I devoted to each. Instead, I thought, “I’ve spent enough time with Jill. Let’s see how Ruth is doing now,” and opened the next chapter in Ruth’s point of view. It was a thoroughly organic process. I switched chapters and viewpoints whenever it felt right.

When Good-Bye To All That comes out next March, some academician may post a meticulous analysis of the novel, explaining how masterfully I paced all those point-of-view changes, how cleverly I used Diet Coke as a symbol of Jill’s attempts to reinvent herself, how brilliantly I deployed Brooke’s and Melissa’s hair styles as a metaphor for the emotional turmoil in their lives. I’ll read this analysis and laugh myself giddy, thinking, no, I used Diet Coke because Jill just seemed like a Diet Coke kind of woman, and the hair thing fell into place because Melissa was dating a gorgeous salon employee and I needed Brooke to make Doug jealous, and anyway, hey, it looked cool!


  1. Funny! I read that same blog and find it interesting but my guess is Kitty Stockett wrote it more intuitively just like you write your novels. Thanks for this peek into your process.

  2. Thank you for this! I, too, am an intuitive writer. When I took a pottery course several years ago. The entire class was focused on creating what the instructor told them to create, and several were very frustrated because the clay would not go where they were forcing it to go. Each project for me was a lesson in letting the organic process work and let the item be what it wants to be. I'm glad that was a community enrichment class and not for credit. I would have 'failed' by the instructor's standards because I did not follow the "rules". Writing is like that for me. Characters want to be set free and how we do that cannot be set in a narrowly defined formula.

  3. What a great post! I think I would have shared your reaction to the "Women and Popular Culture" symposium (though my inner literary critic may have been taking notes in secret). I have the same reaction when critics tirelessly analyze Lada Gaga videos.

    I wonder what Austen, The Bronte Sisters and Virginia Woolf would think about our analysis of their work? Shoot, Austen is a trend (or inspiration?) in current literature today! What does that mean? I'd rather not think too hard about it and just allow myself to be absorbed into a good book.

    I love alternating POVs, so I can't wait to read your new novel!

  4. I'm always thinking hard when I read a novel now and analyze the hell out of it, seeing where it works and where it doesn't. I like to think that I write kind of in-between -- half organically and half "counting the beats." For me it's good to be aware of both. :-)

  5. Back from a trip out of town with erratic internet service. I'm glad to see people enjoyed my blog post (and didn't analyze it too carefully. )