Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Building Novels.

a guest blog by Julianna Baggott (with some N.E. Bode insights...)


When I first started writing, I relied solely on words. One word gave way to the next. A novel couldn't accumulate from one word to the next -- like building a house on gravel. Maybe a better novelist could, but I couldn't.

However, if you've got stories or one story that resonates with you and readers, you can take that story and look for pleats -- ways to open it up. There are natural constraints on stories -- size of the cast of characters, point of view (one incident -- four points of view? maybe a novel), time, geography, insight, back story. If you open one of these elements in a story, you might have a novel. I'll come back to this.

It's not really a strange coincidence that the first story of mine to catch the attention of an agent was in first person. I'd figured out something beyond words and began to rely on voice. If a voice is strong enough it can carry a novel -- not alone, but it can, under the best of circumstances, allow a novel to tell itself. It's a way to get the author out of authority. (This, in my case, is always good as I sometimes lord around in a novel in destructive ways.)

(It also helped that I didn't ever sit down to write my first novel. I only sat down to write the first 50 pages of what I hoped to be an undeniable start to a novel that I never intended to finish. See this blog for the back story.)

Girl Talk was originally a short story of eleven pages in which a father disappears for one night. That was my pleat. I unstitched it. Why a night? Why not a summer? I had another short story that seemed like it could be shaped to the mother's backstory ... I wrote toward it. And in the short story "Girl Talk," the final scene was a leap forward in time. This put an ending in sight.

In my second novel, The Miss America Family, I took on two voices, which added texture for me and point of view. A few short stories rounded out this novel as well.

My third novel, The Madam, was in many ways the first novel that I felt I'd written. It was in third person and was my own authorial voice. I wasn't limited by my characters' imaginations, world views, vocabularies ... I felt like I was falling into language again -- lush and perhaps overbearing.

To write The Anybodies, I reverted back to voice. Because I didn't know how to write for a younger audience, I needed the sureness of being N.E. Bode -- dimpled with innocence and his own bizarre insecurities and delightful paranoia.

While writing The Nobodies, I'd started talking to people in LA and realized that The Anybodies was lacking in an overriding philosophy. They also allowed me to be more cinematic.

At this point, I started practicing visualizing scenes. I'd watch them play out in my mind -- and this time she smashes her watch -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him and then catches on fire ... It became a much more efficient and visual form of writing and editing. From there on, my first draft was no longer my first draft. I'd edited it my head ...

Now, with Which Brings Me to You (co-written with Steve Almond), I also had a voice that seemed to be able to sustain a larger form. It was a character I'd written for the anthology LitRiffs. But mainly, I learned the value of audience. It helped that the novel had a structure built into the DNA of its inception. Two people meet at a wedding, instead of having sex in the coat closet, they decide to swap confessions. In the end, they meet again -- and either fall in love or not.

But what really made the novel easy to write (and here I say easy because it was easy in the beginning -- eventually it broke down to me and Almond screaming at each other -- which, we will both tell you -- with great chin-upped-ness -- was good for the novel and an important part of our collaborative creative process -- or something like this... and true, true ... but only in retrospect ... ) was that my character Jane was writing to only one other person, the character of John, and, as a writer, I was only writing to one other person, Almond.

The sentence is of course still the bottleneck through which the whole novel must pass. And so regardless of what I've come to rely on ... it's still all words. And since we choose different words when speaking to different people, my confessions in Which Brings Me to You had the clarity of knowing my audience and the urgency of the telling ...

The Prince of Fenway Park was also born with its DNA fully in tact. My husband Dave and I were talking about what my next project should be. (The older I get the more I rely on conversations of this sort. Collaboration is another way at texture.) I was bemoaning research. Note: I'd been in love with research -- a research junky -- because it also takes me out of authority ... always good for me. See above. And I'd just come off of writing Lizzie Borden in Love, a collection of poems in women's voices, which was -- page for page -- the most hard-earned book I've ever written. It demanded huge amounts of research. (I'll talk about poetry in another blog.) And I was tired.

I wanted to write a novel that we both knew a little something about. Dave told me that he knew the Red Sox -- inside and out. Thanks. What was I going to do? Write a baseball novel? I was a magical realist when it came kid novels ... I wasn't going to write sports.

But then I thought about the Red Sox -- they were cursed. That was magical. And then these sentences came to me.

There was a Curse.
It was reversed.
And this is the boy who did it.
The Prince of Fenway Park.

Of course, I had no idea that the novel was going to be about racism, the Fens, Irish folklore ... But it felt like a classic. It was the greatest singular joy to write.

I still use the texture of stories and parts of failed novels. I'm a firm believer in a healthy junk yard.

I've been idiotic in the building of novels. Once, I had an insight while flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. There were no rooms. Only moments within rooms -- part of an armchair and half of a rug. I decided -- in a moment of sheer desperation (should I even mention that I was desperate? I mean, if you're flipping through Pottery Barn catalogs while you should be writing, things are desperate...) -- that I only needed to be undeniable in every scene -- moment to moment. And if I had faith in the undeniable moments, they would build into a novel.

I don't know. That might be true. What's not true when it comes to process?

In general, though, I've learned that each novel teaches me how to write it. And, as I've said before, each novel relies on my willingness to fall in love ...