First of all, a big hello to readers of this blog! I’m the 2015-16 Writer-in-Residence at the library. I arrived a month ago from Whitehorse, Yukon, with my partner and our “Yukon trail mix” husky-lab. I’m meeting many different writers (emerging and published) and getting to know Winnipeg—the magnificent old trees, the river walks, and of course McNally Robinson’s. And oh yes, I’ve learned what shmoo (or schmoo) cake is :-)
I’m planning to write a blog entry every two weeks on all kinds of different writing-related topics. If you have a topic you’re interested in, or a question you’d like answered, please let me know at email@example.com.
You can also book an appointment to see me. If you’re stuck in your writing, or want to know how to start, I can give you some suggestions.
How do I write a novel?
No, you don’t need an outline. You don’t need to know how the story will end, or even where it’s going. In fact, the less you know at the beginning, the better!
That sounds paradoxical, I know. It flies in the face of everything we’re taught at school. But writing creatively requires being in what one author calls “a state of unknowing.” Someone else described the process as “like lighting matches in a dark cave that keep going out.”
For most writers the process is triggered by an image of some sort. It might come from an overheard conversation, a newspaper story, a memory, someone seen briefly on the street, a dream—from anywhere, in fact.
A recent short story of mine was triggered by an article about a couple who’d found 17 bodies of young men on a beach in southern Spain (and who turned out to be undocumented migrants). That image—bodies on a beach—stayed with me, and because it haunted me I knew I had to write a story.
But I wasn’t interested in simply retelling the actual events. I was more interested in asking: ‘What if …?’ What if the body (one body) is that of a young Moroccan, and the person who finds him is a 30-something Canadian woman on vacation? What does she do about the discovery? And what happens next?
That ‘what if,’ that sense of possibility and discovery, is the source of all story, whether we’re writers or readers. And as writers, we’re writing for ourselves first of all as the first reader of the work. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that she couldn’t find the poems she wanted to read, so she had to write them herself.
That is what any novel—indeed, any authentic work of art—ultimately is: the world, or a piece of it, filtered through your emotions and experience and values and beliefs. Give 10 different novelists the same idea, and I guarantee you’d end up with 10 very different novels.
So find the image that haunts you, and go from there. Start with a character, or a couple of characters. What emotional state are they in at the beginning of the novel?—that will determine what they notice and how they behave. Put them in a situation of instability—that is, they’ve either just experienced a change of some sort in their life or are about to. What happens next? What if …?
I’m available at the library until April 30, 2016. So keep writing – and keep those manuscripts coming in!