The Madwoman and the Flypaper

First things first: being a fiction writer is, in my opinion, a type of fortunate madness, sanctioned by society, tolerated by family, where a lonely person locked in a room, hallucinating about figments of her imagination, playing god in a world of her own creation can claim to be a functional member of said society, and could even be gainfully employed, to the relief of said family.

At the beginning of October, after a year and four months of work, I finished the second draft of my historical novel, which doesn’t mean that the book is finished, not by far, not until those loose ends are dealt with and those sentences polished, but it does mean that I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.

Writing a novel is easy

While I was writing the first draft, I was discovering, I was following my instincts, I was playing with suppositions and taking chances, but I knew that nothing was set in stone, and that whatever I wrote was not meant to be final. I wasn’t married to my ideas or my characters or my words, so I had fun. Real fun.

Rewriting a novel is hard

That large amount of stuff I generated during the first draft—hundreds of thousands of words, with lots of side notes—I had to take all that and decide what worked with the majority of the story, while not knowing what that majority looked like. The circular decision process gave me headaches at times.

The beginning of a rewrite is extra hard

That’s where locations and characters are determined, and they must be solid enough to support the whole story. No more what-ifs.

The end of a rewrite is extra hard

That’s where all the subplots must converge without seeming artificial, where all the themes and objects in the novel must be validated by their role in the story or they must go.

I’m one of the bad guys

Being a human being makes me sympathetic to other people’s pain. A few times I had to put a scene away and come back later because I felt ill imagining my characters’ agony. But I must make my characters’ lives hard or there’d be no story.

Life is not linear

In my writing I have the kind of control I don’t have in real life—sun in the sky, clouds and rain at my command—but when disease and death happen around me, in this world, there’s no hidden plot device to alter the course. I tried to remember that painful life lesson whenever I was tempted to tie a bow too neatly in my story.

Writing is magic

Breakthroughs often come from bridging first-draft and second-draft ideas in unexpected ways. A novel is a system with objects that form patterns not obvious from the first go-through. When those patterns become apparent—and I’m surprised when they do and how they feel just right—it is as though the story is out of my hands and is writing itself.

The writing mind is like flypaper

I catch and savor every tidbit of history that comes my way, every morsel of science that has some connection to my story. The story changes based on what I learn each day, so it’s impossible to know from the beginning what the novel will look like in the end. To make things worse, my working without a clear deadline makes it easy to follow delicious crumbs of research to places I wouldn’t have dreamed of on page 1.

Doubt is a given

Sometimes I stop and wonder what in the world I’m doing. It’s pretty crazy, staking years of my life on an unproved concept that could be garbage to anyone else, but is interesting to me because… I grew up where I grew up? Or because of some weirdness in my brain? When I go to a bookstore or I browse movie listings, I get overwhelmed by the many people who walked this path before me and finished their work. Self-doubt creeps in: what if I don’t have what it takes to see this thing through?

The acts and scenes in my novel, where I can see them all

The acts and scenes in my novel, where I can see them all

Then I sit down to work, and my brain warms up and I’m flowing with the story, alone in my room, reading about faraway places and times long gone, hallucinating about people in a world I have created from whim, writing it all down—and that’s okay (at least that’s what my friends say).

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