I like seeing the sketches made before a finished painting, often with lively strokes from a particular hand. I’m thinking of my new and evolving manuscript like a sketch, one no one should judge from its disarray, and only one person, me, looking into it for its promise. I began this novel with a person who made me curious, much as I begin my poems based on people from history, but in this case the setting called me almost as much. Just as the memory of a place can carry us back into a sense of what once happened there, putting a place on a page can push a novelist toward what can happen there. Writing about the house and land where my protagonist lives gave me clues to who she’ll be. I sketched out the attic, the basement, the size of windows, and what was on the refrigerator door, getting to know the schedules and interests of the family. (And you may want to check out Gail Gauthier’s refrigerator at Original Content: I love how hearing about my all-words-refrigerator inspired her to clean off her real fridge and face her characters’ passions every time she opens its door for a cool drink. But we may want to run interference if she starts stocking the shelves for her characters.)
While my protagonist’s name keeps changing – steady now for nine days, a sign that maybe I know her – her age has remained twelve. I can see her clothes, and I found a notebook with a dolphin on the cover where I let her write her thoughts. So to speak, as we writers say, meaning I’m not crazy. And she may or may not be a poet. We’re still experimenting. And if she is, will her poems stay secret? I expect this notebook will make me keep the book first person, as there’s a lot of voice, but because that’s appealing to me, but less to the powers who want to sell books, I write “action” at the top of every other page or so, to remember to keep moving forward, and at some point soon I’d better worry about plot. I’m both the writer and teacher, giving myself directions I might give my students, asking of scenes: Why does this matter? How does it set up new questions? Could the scene be bigger or smaller? What does this have to do with what she wants and fears most? Can I make those wants and fears happen to stir up drama?
In other words, I’m making a mess, though I’d rather think of it as a swathe of colors, shapes to be explored. While laying down color, I keep in mind both positive and negative space, the object and the shapes around it. Each mark informs the next, though I rub out parts that were a path but no longer needed. And shine up what is likely to stay. Counting words is fine in the spirit of generating material, if not so much to satisfy our desire to move along, to get closer to being done. Personally, I don’t count words that come and go, but I’m satisfied to some sentences slowly look steadier.
Part of me wants everything to stay in place – hey, I worked for these words – while a wiser part knows that the shuffling in and out of sight is a sign of growth. I must create and let go, sometimes in one day, sometimes a week, sometimes within a breath. Mistakes aren’t just something writers must tolerate, but the necessary ground. I create descriptions I know must be cut and conversations thinned for the right line or two. What I’m doing here is not writing the final book, which should have a dynamic beginning, but playing with setting, motivation, and relationships, learning about character and theme, in order to later write clear and gripping first pages. I’m creating attics or basements I can plunder for symbols, which may be guides to themes.
In sketching on the canvas, I’ve gone to the four corners, though of course my work is linear. I have folders of bits of scenes, including one of the ending. I’ve been one of those who tend to write my way toward an ending, a fan of the adage, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader,” though I quote it only with disclaimers, for everyone has their own right way of getting to an end, and an outlined novel can prickle with surprise. And now, back to laying down a lot of paint to be scraped away, which leaves plenty of canvas where I can start again, and again. There’s a girl with an obsession. There’s an attic with a view of the woods. And a puzzling noise.