Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Doorstop Novel in Pictures

This is how I see every novel before I start it. It's a butterfly, about to take its first flight. Full of promise and beauty. So pretty! So delicate and fragile.

I know writers who wrote 10 or more novels before they sold. I know writers who wrote for 20 years before they sold. I know writers, including myself, who sold their first novel. I also know writers, including myself, who sold a few books and then didn't for a while and then did again. There are writers who hit a bestseller list with their first book and others who wrote twenty or more before they were selling a lot of books. I even know traditionally published authors who never hit a list of any kind until they self-published. There are writers who had to change their names to salvage their careers and THEN they had sales success. The progression of a career is as varied as the writers who have them.

One thing just about all writers have in common is their doorstop novel. The one that could not, cannot, or perhaps even should not, be brought to life.

I myself have such a novel. It would have been my third one. I was struggling as a writer at the time, primarily, I believe, because I was trying to plot and plan and structure my writing when, actually, that is not a process that works for me.

I worked on that novel, a historical romance set in the early Victorian era, for years. YEARS. I refused to give up on it. But my novel was like the peacock in this picture. Walking away. Leaving the inhospitable environment I had provided.

The working title was A Stranger's Heart and it's about a man who unexpectedly inherits a title. When he arrives at his estate, the housekeeper is a breathtakingly beautiful American woman with a dark, dark secret. Alas, most of the story is deadly dull except for a few parts that glow like that peacock when he's looking for chicks.

I think about the story every now and then, and I remember why the peacock is running away from home. The boring exposition. The parts where I refused to deviate from my 70 page outline even though there were passages that, in retrospect, were calling out to my subconscious: This way. Follow THIS thread. But I didn't. Because I believed at the time that I had to have outlines and plots and character charts.

I was wrong about what I needed to do. My novel, with its flashes of brilliance, was surrounded by a landscape sucked of its life. Like this picture. Just so we're clear, "dinner" here is my novel. The spider is the process that killed my writing. The web is, uh, the spider's home? There's a fearful symmetry there. Spiders are, of course, entitled to dine on what is natural for them. Just as writers need to feed their writing with a process that works for them.

If, as a writer, you try to force yourself to fit some mold that isn't you, you're going to end up like this sheep. Shorn of your dignity and just waiting for it all to be over.  Resigned even as you hope for inspiration from the outside. A Deus Ex Machina that will miraculously transform your book when the change needs to come from inside you.

Casting my doorstop novel as the sheep here, all the tools in the world can't fix you. You are not a butterfly or a peacock and as long as I am (was) broken as a writer, you, poor novel, are also broken. You are a sheep and I have written you into a position that is just damned undignified.

If I tried to write you now, I'd be better at it, but it would not be you, poor sheep. I would be something else entirely. But I thank you for the lesson.

I'll leave you with this image of the sunflower. Happy and cheerful. But also mysterious. Like writing.

A note about the pictures

 I took these pictures with my Nikon D-80 SLR.

The Swallowtail photo is, in fact, a butterfly that had just emerged from its chrysalis. I was holding that stick and the Swallowtail was staying still because it was waiting for its wings to dry. I got several excellent shots as a result.

A few years ago, peacocks moved into our neighborhood. This is Angus and I took this picture of him walking down the bottom half of our driveway because it was just so odd to see.

I'm ashamed to admit that when I took the shot of the garden spider, I didn't realize it was wrapping up dinner at the time. It was only when I was back at the computer looking at them that I saw the meal. These spiders are large but harmless by the way. But they eat bugs and that's good. I have several really great shots of some Black Widow spiders, too.

The sheep being sheared is Ian, a Welsh Mountain sheep. The man in blue jeans is the guy we call to shear our sheep and the neighbors. He has a PhD in Medieval history. The other is my father, now a retired physician.

I just like the sunflower picture and I love taking shots of them. I have yet to get the perfect one.


  1. SUCH an interesting story about the fate of that third novel. And I love the photos, too!!

  2. Carolyn, wonderful post! I so agree with what you are saying. I've tried to plot, to pre-write a novel the way other people tell you to, but in the end, it's a very personal process for us all. Do What Works is my mantra. And I love the pictures and the stories behind them :)

  3. Wow. I just love this. And I love the peacock analogy. How cool to have a peacock in your 'hood.

  4. Just to clarify, the sheep shearer does not shear the neighbors. He shears the neighbor's sheep. I should go change that but it's kind of funny. I can just see the neighbor's running away from him all waving their hands and screaming, but I don't need to be dewormed!

  5. Such a great post, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing that. I admire writers who can plot their books out in advance, but alas, it's not me either. (Creepy spider pic! I had to click to enlarge it and see the "dinner.")

  6. Exactly what I needed to read right now. I'm writing a novel that I pitched over two years ago, and for various reasons, the contract was resurrected...and here I am. I feel like I'm trying to shove an octopus in a box using one hand...And I have no emotional attachment to the octopus, so...I think I need to abandon the story that seemed so compelling then. Let the characters chart their own futures. And by Sept. 1

  7. These facts are really interesting. Few of them were well known for me but many of them were brand new for me too!
    I will print this one out and show to my friends because they will be definitely interested in that. Thanks!