My agent once told me about a manuscript she was considering for representation. She was enjoying it. She thought it well-written. But when she reached the final page, she knew she would reject it.
“It was too muddled at the center,” she said. “I still didn’t know what the book was about.”
Which reminded me of something writing instructor Donna Levin said when I took a novel workshop with her a decade or so ago in San Francisco: part of the challenge of writing a novel is taking their different elements and making them “all hang together”.
As 2009 ticked into 2010, I noticed a trend among the blogs I was following when it came to goals and resolutions. People were choosing words that would set their personal theme and tone for 2010. These words are meant to act as a kind of North Star, to keep your actions aligned in the right direction no matter the distractions life throws your way.
And then: why not find the ‘words’ that would guide my novel in progress?
Although I have the spine or plot of my supernatural thriller (a young dancer’s involvement with two older men triggers traumatic memories of a past life in which one of them may have killed her) – and a sense of what it’s “about” (how we subconsciously repeat the past in an effort to resolve or master it), I still need to ground these ideas in concrete incidents and specific characters. Everything needs to interrelate in order for the book to hang together – to be a cohesive whole and not just a bunch of working parts.
Because my novel is called THE DECADENTS, the first word was a no-brainer. Decadence! I mind-mapped the word. I came up with everything from the pleasures of ice cream to acts of debauchery, ancient Rome to Bret Easton Ellis, luxury goods and consumerism and greed and the effects of global warming, narcissism and addiction, the ‘decadent’ arts and literary movement, decadence as rebellion, decadence as political statement. I thought about the definition of decadence as a ‘falling away’ from traditional norms (sometimes a GOOD thing) and moral values (who defines ‘morality’?). I brainstormed how this might apply to my characters. What is the ‘decadent’ version of love? If love is about giving, abundance, nurturing, allowing the other person the freedom to thrive and be themselves, then the ‘falling away’ value, the decadent underside, is about taking, scarcity, possession, using the other person to fulfill your own needs no matter the damage or consequences. How can this play out in my storyworld? What are the ‘decadent’ things my characters can do to each other and themselves that will drive the story forward?
When I pulled back and looked at my mind-map as a whole, I had a bigger sense of the book. I began to see how I can throw my characters against a larger context of culture and society.
For my second word I wanted a kind of counterweight, something to encourage conflict, growth, story. So I chose the word ‘redemption’.
The purpose of this exercise isn’t to impose all this stuff on the story, wave my authorial hands and declare the Deeper Meaning or Thematic Imagery. It’s to feed this stuff into my undermind and program my subconscious sense of the novel.
The reader should make their own connections. Your job is to develop connections for them to make.
When you write a story, you are constantly deciding what to include and what to leave out. Walk into any room and a million details will bombard your senses, of which you’ll only ‘notice’ a relative handful. If you’re writing that room into a scene, you’ll include even less. Which means that each thing you put in your story becomes important, simply by virtue that you chose it instead of a zillion other things. That act of selection becomes its own tiny statement. One little thing is nothing on its own, but through the course of a novel, they add up. You want them to accumulate in a way that adds richness and value to your story. Otherwise they’re just a bunch of random stupid things. They’re meaningless. They don’t ‘hang together’.
By telling my undermind ‘decadence’ and ‘redemption’, it’s like I’m coding it to ‘notice’ and include certain things — and leave out others. As I continue to write my novel, my subconscious will guide me. I’ll write little things and maybe some big things without really thinking about it. The book’s “deeper meaning” and “thematic imagery” won’t be implanted but grow naturally from the storytelling. The end result will be – let us pray – a compelling supernatural thriller that ‘hangs together’ all the way through to create depth and resonance.