I’m plotting a novel, assembling the scaffolding on which my story will hang. Connecting bones, thigh to hip, spine to brain stem. Who knows if I’m getting it right. Novels don’t come with instructions.
Still, some of the pieces seem to saddle up, and I start getting that relieved feeling like this might all hang together after all.
Blast it all, who is this chick? The one who steers the ship, the flawed and weak hero about to visit this mild death? Cannot get a handle on her. I know what I will have her do. Know the holes she will have to squeeze through, the love she will face, the failure that will swat her sideways like a bug. But she’s silent. Until she speaks, I have nothing.
So I force it.
What else can I do but curl up on my writing couch (every writer should have a writing couch. So cozy) pencil in hand and write lousy dialogue. The process makes sense to me. I began my creative life in theater, so for me dialogue is the fastest way to character revelation. It’s always worked for me before.
Nothing comes of my dialogue. I’m moving her lips, but she’s not in the words. It’s just my monkey chatter flowing onto the page. My hero is a no show. Maybe if I move to the computer, try typing instead of writing by hand.
Not only is my hero a no show, but now I’m wasting time on Facebook. I need to heed Jonathan Franzen’s advice and write on a computer that has no internet access. There’s only one thing to do now. Pout. The whole things a waste of time anyway. No one will want to read this mess.
It’s autumn up here in Canada. I have two ash trees in my front yard. Ash trees are known for being the last trees out in spring, and the first to lose their leaves in fall. My ash trees live up to this reputation and have littered all over the lawn. I grab a rake.
I’m pushing tree debris around the yard, the air is snappy-cool, the sun is falling behind my house. I’m muttering to myself, Who is she? What’s she really all about? Rake, rake. Mutter, mutter.
She starts yapping. Really letting it flow. And—get this—it’s not dialogue. It’s narrative. Huh? I keep raking while I listen to her narrate. After a few minutes she starts adding things, internal dialogue, nuggets of perception, even a few plot details I had no idea about. She’s brilliant!
I drop the rake, run into the house, throw myself onto my writing couch. “Where’s a pencil? I need paper? Where’d I put my glasses?
My husband, who is used to me in this mode, silently hands me all I ask for, and I start writing. Long hand. I don’t know the reasons, but pencil and paper are what work for me. I write five pages without looking up. When I finish, I smile at my hubby.
Of course. I know this. Whenever I’m stuck, I need to go do something else. I can’t sit and try to force the words. Novels don’t flow from the frontal lobe. They leek out sideways, come at you from the peripheral.
I suspect this works in other areas of life, too. Whenever we feel stuck—maybe even a little desperate—for answers they only come after we get on with living.