Thursday, January 10, 2008

Work in Progress: THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!

I am a "put an idea on a scrap of paper” kind of writer—the most cursory of glances at my work area would confirm this. Even when I go to a blank slate environment such as an artist’s colony, with 24 hours, my pristine work area is filled with scraps of paper…all desperately important, all—at the time they’re written—the KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!

I’ve tried to change this cluttery approach: The single notebook where everything gets written down…which works until I’m sitting on the Metro and have an idea I need to immediately jot down on the back of an Ann Taylor coupon in my purse. I suppose I could then transfer that to the notebook—or even stick it in the notebook—but I never do, and at best, the scraps of paper end up stacked on top of the notebook.

Or the computer file approach: “Ideas,” is the hopeful new file name, and for a few days I remember to type out my thoughts in neat little bullet points. The problem is that all those thoughts blend together and blur visually; I’m much more prone to think, “Where’s that line I wrote on the Ann Taylor coupon; that’s the KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! and I must find that piece of paper,” rather than calmly scroll through all those bland-looking bullet points.

At the colonies, there are people who happily pin these notes to a bulletin board or tape them to the wall, and I suppose I could put up a bulletin board or wreck my wall paint. But even at the colony, with the bulletin board and tacks, something in me resists. I’m not sure I want to see all those notes splayed out there, as if left hanging out to dry. They are vulnerable, these special scraps of paper, and they seem to me to like to gather in quiet herds, to stay tucked away on the desk. Seeing too many of them spread out might make me realize…some of them are misguided and not at all THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! (Not that I would throw anything away, because we know what happens as soon as you do…"I must have that scrap of paper that I thought was dumb but now is THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!")

So, clearly I’m not able to change this aspect of my writing personality. But it’s obvious that over the course of a novel, this “system” will result in too much paper and too much disorganization, even for me with my high tolerance for clutter.

I’m pleased to announce that in the process of working on this novel, I have accidentally come upon the perfect solution: Index cards. (I always trust office supplies to solve any major writing problem…some day I’ll have to write about the perfect pen I swear by.)

Yes, the simple “obvious solution” would be to carry around index cards in my purse and to buy a cute little file box and color code everything and flip through them like a 1960s librarian…but when I say “index cards” I actually mean that I’ve found a way to cut to THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! problem.

I haven’t given up the scraps of paper system, which in its chaos is oddly comforting to me. (Maybe the accumulation of paper makes me feel as though I’m accomplishing something?) But every so often when I read over the entire manuscript (after a break in writing, say, or at key planning moments), I pull out my index cards and one of those perfect pens and I write questions on my index cards—one question per card.

These are deep, hard questions, not questions like, “What color is Nora’s dress at the surprise party?” More like, “Why does Callie return home after 18 years?” These are questions that usually I have no answer to but that any reader might wonder and expect would be addressedd in the course of the book. Depending on where I am in the process, I write up at least a dozen or more of these questions. Then, feeling daunted and vaguely depressed, I pack up my little index cards and rubber band them and stick them in a large plastic envelope (another perfect office supply) and leave them behind.

The next day, I write. And write some more. And write some more. Soon enough, I reach a point where it’s time to read over everything and write up more index cards. At that point, I also read back over the cards I’ve previously written.

It’s a miracle! In the work I’ve done, I’ve answered some of those questions! Even more miraculous—some of the questions have shifted in interesting ways thanks to the writing and exploring I’ve been doing. And best of all, I find new, challenging questions to write on the index cards. I shuffle the new and unanswered questions to the top of the stack, let the answered questions pile up at the bottom, and pack away the cards and get back to writing.

The questions also help whenever you reach a point where you’re stuck. They remind you of what’s important, what loose ends you need to address. That little pack of cards is like a road map leading to my destination, and I love the paradox that in the questions are the answers.

To me, the most valuable thing one can do with a novel in progress is to ask questions. Why and how? Those questions—and how the writer chooses to address them; not all answers are direct, of course—truly are THE KEY TO THE WHOLE NOVEL. And just as it’s pleasing to see masses of scraps of paper that make you think you’ve been working hard all these years, it’s even more pleasing to follow the trail of questions that led you to this magical point: where you know your characters, you know your story, and dare you say it: maybe you even know what you’re doing with this book!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.