Dinner last night with M., an absolutely lovely, charming, vibrant woman whose first novel just got a huge review in a national and popular publication. She told me it took her eight years to write that first novel; she kept writing draft after draft, writing it in different ways, feared turning into one of those people who “was always tinkering, never actually finishing”, feared it so much that even the sale of the novel (there was a bidding war for it) couldn’t match the joy and satisfaction of actually completing it. “Wasn’t it like that for you?” she asked me. (Yes and no.) She asked me how long it took to write my novel BLOODANGEL; I said three years. I had had the experience of finishing novels before, and knew I could, expected I would; but I didn’t know when or if I’d ever actually sell one. “So it took you longer than three years to write your book,” she was quick to recognize, “it also took you the amount of time to write those previous novels that prepared you to write the book that’s now getting published. That’s basically what I did, except instead of different practice novels I was writing the same one over and over.”
Which is exactly what I would have done, I realize now, if only I had liked any of those earlier attempts enough to make such a commitment of time, energy, love, faith. But it took me years to figure out the kind of book I wanted and needed to write, as opposed to the kind I thought I ought to write.
M. was self-conscious about being deemed ‘literary’: “There are just too many so-called literary types who look down on certain fiction for the wrong kinds of reasons. Who assume that if something sells well, it must automatically be bad. That if it has a plot of any kind, it must automatically be bad…I’m embarrassed to be associated with those kinds of attitudes…There’s just so much snark out there.”
My parents both read my YA novel STRANGER (my mother is almost always my first reader of anything, my father and sister not far behind) within the last week. My father, who’s been writing and thinking seriously about fiction for many years now, finished it today, sent me a quick ‘first impressions’ email and made an excellent point:
Prologue- introduction of Jasper. This was subtly done – we meet Jasper as a preteen, seven years old… My problem is – I would have liked a hint right then that Jasper was a sharp kid (It’s only well into the story that we learn he was an early reader etc.). He’s our male hero and we want to know he possesses some of those “desirable traits”. Lying on the back car seat doesn’t cut it for us. Perhaps he’s in the front seat because his Dad has dropped off several other players. Maybe he’s engrossed reading something from his Dad’s palm pilot (Robert downloads stories/science articles his son can read – Kid feels like a giant) Anyway, somehow we are pleased (need) to sense that Jasper’s an intelligent young boy – and thus more sensitive/attuned to the coyote and the voice when he looks out the window.
Jasper is not my protagonist, but my protagonist’s older brother (and the catalyst for the story). He is exceptionally smart — early-entrance-to-Harvard smart — as well as a compulsive reader, and both these things help cause the thing that happens to him (and to his younger sister, who must save him from the consequences). Thing is, I didn’t actually realize this until I was deep into the story. My initial concept of the character was extremely different from the guy who actually emerged, which is one reason why all the outlines and character sketches and biographical exercises and other kinds of note-taking will only get you so far, why you never truly know the story or the people until you sit down and actually write the damn thing.
My father is absolutely right; I need to go back and rewrite the prologue to reflect the person Jasper turned out to be, instead of the person I intended him to be.
I love Jasper. (It still astounds me, this deep tenderness you develop towards people who do not actually exist). He surprised me, and it’s always great when a character throws you off-guard like that, part of the deep pleasure of discovery, of writing fiction in the first place.