Hi friends. Here’s another guest blog . . . this one from the author of Ethan Park: A Legacy. I hope you enjoy it.Jason
E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
For years, actually for decades, I struggled to pull that first story, that first novel, out of my imagination and onto paper. It was a daunting task. Not only was it something for which I had not trained, but it was a task for which I had neither the time nor wherewithal to attack while working full-time and raising three children.
Looking back, the operative idea in the above paragraph had nothing to do with working or raising a family. It had more to do with me not possessing the knowledge necessary to attacking the task. I’m not one who usually takes time to read instructions. I prefer to figure out things on my own, i.e. success through trial-and-error.
Getting a novel written was a feat which stopped me dead in my tracks. There were several attempts over the years. I read countless books by successful and multi-published authors. These books were devoured in my study. I took endless notes, created hundreds of index cards with step-by-step writing methods. What I found was that each of these authors had their own way of summiting the monumental task of creating a novel. What these authors neglected to mention was how they had arrived at the method that worked for them.
This insight was a huge step forward for me. At the same time, it was also a huge step backward. It froze me in my tracks. I had tried the methods that had created their success. I even munged several methods together. Nothing seemed to click. I would bog myself down in detail, or lack of detail, or just about anything else that could cause the paper to remain as blank as my mind.
I had the story idea. At least I thought I had a good plot. The characters would even come to visit on occasion, telling me all the great things they wanted to do in the story. They taunted me. They laughed at me.
Over the years I would start and stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Finally, I got to the point where I stopped starting. Obviously, these authors had a magic formula they guarded as well as Coca-Cola guards their formula. Or maybe there was some writers’ club that I wasn’t in and to which I would never be granted entry.
I gave up.
The ideas and characters still visited…and visited often. Then they started bringing their friends. New ideas, plotlines, and characters began dropping by my mind, taunting, keeping their story from me. Their drama and their lives dwelled just out of my mind’s reach.
The noise became too loud to ignore. I knew I had to give it one more shot. So, another attempt at writing, getting the story out and one more foray at finding the secret formula. Several weeks of pawing through publishing websites, author biographies, etc.
One day the proverbial harp music from Heaven played, the rays of light shown from above! My search had not been in vain. I had found the formula for me.
Having completed my first manuscript all the way from rough draft through to publication, I’ve come to realize that, as with most things in life, there isn’t a “one-formula-fits-all.” There is a unique-formula-for-all. The trick is to solve that equation for yourself.
Returning to the analogy of harps and rays of sunlight, what sparked the aha moment for me was reading that above quote from E.L. Doctorow. His words made sense to me. I have driven across the United States more times than I care to remember, some meandering, some A to B trips. Through either style of travel, the headlight analogy resonated with me. For I realized, I didn’t have to visualize each and every stop along the way. I just needed to know the basics. The journey would be long, to be sure. But I knew my starting point and I knew the destination. The trip would require stops, gas, food, and lodging. Yes, a few of those I could pre-plan and so I would have a good idea of how they would go.
I would know, for example, that when I left St. Augustine, FL I would stop in New Orleans, LA. I may even know the name of the street and the hotel where I would stay. What I wouldn’t know, perhaps, is what type of traffic I would encounter upon entering the city, the exact parking slot, or who/what may be parked next to me. I wouldn’t know the desk clerk, their personality quirks (assuming they will have some – it’s NOLA after all). There would be no way of knowing even what room I would be offered or what view it may award, if any.
From that one quote I realized that what was most necessary was that I knew some of the stops along the plot line. In writing my first manuscript, I learned that my characters, and the plot, would demand unscheduled stops along the way. Oftentimes I let them call the shots by making those extra stops even though it may make the trip a little longer. I had to decide whether these stops enhanced the journey (also known as plot line) or were they unnecessary and detracted from the overall purpose of the trip/plot.
There were times I was straining my vision to outpace the headlights and was tempted to take bigger detours. If these little side trips, as suggested by my plot pals, were intriguing, how exhilarating it may be to veer even farther off the path to an exciting, unexpected experience. This I did on several occasions, in that first draft.
Once I reached the end, I reviewed the journey and all of the stops along the way. Reading version 1 of that manuscript was painful at times. For as exciting as some of those side trips were, they took up unnecessary amounts of time and didn’t add anything to the quality of the story. Reality hit. It was time to cut some of those side trips. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, drag my passengers (the readers) through that. I’d lose them along the way. They would opt out at one of the stops to never again rejoin the journey. This I couldn’t have.
So I found, after purchasing shelves full of how-to-write books and spending countless hours poring over said books, E.L. Doctorow’s two sentences were the key. I simply needed to know how the journey was going to begin. The start of a novel is key to the reader. If I don’t “sell” the plot within the first paragraph, or two, or at least within the first several pages, the reader isn’t coming along for the ride.
Once I get the reader on board, I need to impart confidence to the reader that I have a plan for the journey and that I won’t diverge too far from the intended path. The destination will always be amorphous, but the reader will find comfort in the fact that I know where we will be going.
There is no onus to divulge a detailed itinerary. As a matter of fact, the reader prefers to be surprised along the way. It’s not necessary to spell it out. For the reader, but more importantly for me as the author, I just need to know that the headlights will lead the way.
Peter P. Parrie grew up along the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. His extended family hails from southwestern Louisiana and across the Atlantic to Barcelona, Spain. You can buy his book, Ethan Park; A Legacy, here.