April 3, 2013

A Novel Writing Formula (the making of Drawing the Dead, part 1)

Drawing-the-Dead-Cover-3d-TEST-2a-frontThis is the first part in a series on my novel, Drawing the Dead

In this installment I talk about the formula for how I wrote this novel. A behind-the-scenes look at the parts that made up the whole.

Before we get started, here’s the blurb for the book, so you know what it is about:

Life and death are not that far apart…

What happens when we die? Viki Dobos knows. Her job is to help people talk to their dearly departed. She draws the deceased, and they come to life on the page… briefly. When a rich Russian man hires her and whisks her away to Hawaii, everything changes. The rich man wants her to do the forbidden, and a handsome man she meets on the beach needs her more than he knows. Viki will have to confront her past, face her fears, and risk everything to help them.

From the author of A Ghost’s Memoir series (Shuffled Off and To Be A Fool) comes an unforgettable story of life, death, and the strange places in between.

And now onto the formula…

The Dream

If you’re going to do something big, it really helps to begin with a dream. Writing a novel is no exception, and this one started with a literal dream.

First a little back story. My wife, Aleia, has a rich dream life. Much more vivid and memorable than mine. I rarely remember my dreams in the morning, and when I do, they don’t stay with me long. Aleia often wakes up full of them and tells me her dreams before we get up. It’s the early part of the day before my brain is fully online, when reality hasn’t quite formed, when she tells me. I enjoy hearing them, but just like my own dreams, I promptly forget them. Her dreams (and mine) are nebulous cloud-like wisps that are often gone as soon as they form.

But not always…

One morning, I think it was early 2011, she woke up and told me her dream. She is sketching in charcoal our dear friend Wayne who died in 2004 (I’ve spoken about him here). After she is finished the drawing comes alive and Wayne talks to her.

As soon as she told me about it, I said, “That would make a great story.” Maybe that was the key (linking a dream to a story possibility), but it stuck in my brain, like a seed in fertile ground. Soon the idea took root and the sketch of a plot was clear.

The story would revolve around a medium named Viki Dobos who drew the dead (in pastels, a slight divergence from the dream), and helped her clients talk to their dearly departed. This is what Aleia was doing in her dream, and something we all wish we could do.

That dream was the hook for the story and the hook that got me engaged.

Do Something that Scares You

Writing a novel is scary. No doubt about it. My first novel, Shuffled Off, was something of an accident. I wasn’t trying to write a novel. I was just following the story and a novel is what happened.

When I first conceived of Drawing the Dead, I didn’t think it was going to be a novel. I was absolutely sure it would be about 30,000 words (around 150 pages) making it what is called a “novella.” So, in my mind this wasn’t a novel I was writing, so not scary yet.

But the scary part was there…. A female protagonist.

You see when stories come to me, I don’t argue with them. Changing Viki into a male character to suit my comfort level, would have been a disaster. Following the story as it came to me… well, that’s all I can do.

Ursula Le Guin has a wonderful collection of essays on writing called The Language of the Night. This is the book that got me back to writing at the end of 2008. In it she talks about the writer delving deep into the collective unconscious and coming back with stories. More like a discovery than a creation. It has always been this way for me. The stories and characters lead, I follow.

So a female protagonist it would be.

Scary, but as it turns out in art, scary is good. Scary means you are trying something new, stretching yourself, growing.

Follow the Characters

I mentioned above that I though this book would be a novella. I was sure of it. And, every time I told Aleia this she would gently disagree. “No,” she would say, “I think it’s going to be a novel.”

I (again) didn’t want to write a novel.  Writing them is a long and arduous journey and takes a lot to bring to form. But, my process is to follow the characters, and that is what I did.

There are two different styles of writing that are on opposite ends of the spectrum. One is the “discovery writer,” that sits down and does it by the seat of their pants. The other is the “outliner,” that plans each scene before writing a word.

I lean way towards the “discovery” end. While I had a basic plot in mind when I sat down to write, I didn’t have an outline of any kind. (And yes this is very scary too… and very fun.)

So what happened to the novella that turned it into a novel? The characters took over and that 30,000 words turned into 63,000 words.

I remember right when it happened (sorry, not going to mention it, no spoilers), and it is the best feeling. I had characters, I knew who they were, but imagine what it feels like when they start doing things you didn’t plan. When they take over the narrative and complicate your story (and make it better).

Honestly this has happened with every novel I’ve written (there’s a third one coming later this year) and it is really my favorite part of writing.

When this happened I told Aleia, “Looks like it’s going to be a novel.” She just shook her head and said, “Uh-huh.”

Stephen King talks about this in his book, On Writing. He says (and it’s been a while since I read it, so this is paraphrased) that he wants to be surprised as a writer, and believes if he is surprised, his audience will be too.

It’s kind of like writing like you’re a reader. You’re on the journey too, not exactly sure what is going to happen.

Help (lots and lots of it)

While writing is a solitary activity,  you can’t write a novel alone. (Well, I guess you could, but I wouldn’t recommend reading one that was 100% solo.)

I had lots and lots of it for Drawing the Dead:

Do you see what I mean? That’s a lot of help, and each one of them made this a better book. And believe me, you don’t want to read my un-edited and un-proofed text (I’m sure there are plenty of mistakes in this blog post. All those folks aren’t helping me on this.)

The Formula

So, if I had to come up with a formula for writing a novel, this would be it:

Novel = Dream (literal or otherwise) + Do Something Scary + Follow the Characters + Lots of Help

Drawing the Dead is a product of this formula. Interested? Read the first few chapters right now.

Read about my inspiration for this book in the second part of the series.

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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