Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Work in Progress: Calm Down!

As you may recall, I finished up my revisions on THE ARRIVAL and am now waiting (calmly—ha, ha!) to hear from my agent. To distract myself, I decided to start doing some research on the novel idea I’ve had for about a year, so I’ll be ready when it’s time to launch into that one. Plus, research has the added benefit of feeling useful while also allowing one to take a break from actual writing.

So far, the research has been mostly fun: The novel I’m thinking about tackling will be set in 1900, so I’ve been learning a whole patch of history that my fine education glossed over (Spanish-American War—what’s that? Invasion of the Philippines—huh? Labor unrest—back then?).

Along with history, I’m pondering the multitude of Grand Themes of my novel: man vs. nature, life and death, war and peace, and so on. It’s the most wonderful time of the process because everything sounds possible (in my mind, which is why I’m being vague about specifics), and the unformed book feels as though it could be brilliant. Plenty of time later for me to realize my personal flaws and the difficulty of what I’m trying to do. For now, this is the best book about to be written!

Of course, it’s not all intellectual pursuit and great ponderings. While reading musty library books and taking notes on, yes, my beloved index cards, I also keep part of my mind floating around in the world of my characters: Who are they? What do they want? What might their names be? What do they look like? Where do they live?

So I was feeling pretty good, thinking I have this early process “under control” (when will I learn that nothing writing-related is “under control”?), when I read this must-read post about plotting on agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. (Thanks to Just Like the Nut for steering me here.)

I knew I’d forgotten something: the PLOT! Great themes, interesting history, and characters with names are not enough…there must be action! People must be doing something! You've got to have an arc!

I shoved aside the musty library books and dove into the writing books with one thought in mind: “Must find plot.” You may be surprised to hear that while it’s always helpful to read through some good writing books, they don’t really tell you what your plot should be…at least not in the helpful, “here it is, Leslie,” outline form I was looking for.

Despair. I was ready to give up on my new idea. How far could I get with no action?

What I forgot was at this stage of the process, everything is working even when you don’t see it…in fact, that’s the best work of all, the way your subconscious mind is not “under control.” But it’s there, quietly helping your search, if you simply allow enough time and space to let it do its thing.

Several days later, I randomly opened a small notebook in my purse and came across a single sentence that I had written about this book idea maybe six months ago. Right then, an idea literally popped into my head. Okay, it’s not a handy plot in an outline form that I can plunk my Grand Themes into. But it was an action I hadn’t imagined, and it surprised me with its exact rightness.

Back to the musty library books. Back to the lesson I learn again and again: faith is perhaps the most important aspect of writing…faith in yourself, and above all, faith in the process.


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