Monday, November 1, 2010

Night Driving

     It's like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.--E. L. Doctorow

     Welcome to National Novel Writing Month. This is the month when I drag out my favorite Doctorow quote about novel writing, and sticky note it to my computer screen.

     I hate driving at night. I have terrible night vision. I hate driving in Atlanta, where the street lighting is bad and a street can change names several times, for no good reason. I absolutely refuse to drive at night unless the route is so familiar, I can put my brain on autopilot.

     A couple of weeks ago I drove my daughter to the Regional Skating Competition in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had driven this road exactly once before.  In daylight. It's pretty much a straight shot from Atlanta to Raleigh, seven hours according to a certain Online Mapping Site. This time, however, we couldn't start until school was out. Trying to leave Atlanta any time after three can take up to two hours.

    It took two hours. By the time we got to the Raleigh-Durham area it was well after eleven. And that's when we got into trouble. My Internet Directions were more than a little ambiguous. Forking left instead of right left me driving in an endless loop for three hours. Three hours of driving through what could have been the set for The Blair Witch Project.  No towns, no signs, no lights, and only occasional traffic lines. Lots of deer and spooky looking trees.

   The rest of the world has GPS in their car. I don't. Or at least a road atlas. I didn't. All I knew was that I started in Atlanta and needed to get to Raleigh. Finally I found that wrong fork-in-the-road and made the correct turn. But even the "right" road looked unfamiliar because my directions send me a different way from my previous trip. Go figure. At one thirty in the morning, after a lot of U-turns and squinting at at unlit street signs, we arrived, exhausted at our motel.

    You can see why I like that Doctorow quote. Beginning a novel is easy; first chapters are a cinch. You know where you are; here are the main characters and setting. Here is the set up for the conflict.

     Then you hit chapter two. Suddenly you find yourself driving in the dark, with unclear instructions, and only your literary headlights to guide you.  For years, at this point, I would noodle around for a couple of more pages (usually, description....I love description), and then my headlights would go out. Or I would hit a dead end road, with nowhere to turn around. I have more Chapter Ones with no Chapter Twos in my files than I care to admit.

     I can't/don't outline. The few times I've tried, the story sounded forced, my characters unhappily moving around at my direction. Unhappy characters are not interesting people to spend time with. Some people can write an outline and wham-bam-thank-you-Sam, they have the first draft of a novel. Lots of people use this method for NaNoWriMo.

     I am not one of those people.

      Some people have an internal GPS that just tells them where to turn and stop. I really don't like those people. The ideas just flow right along, beginning to end. They always pull into the Driveway of the Last Chapter before dark. Boo! Hiss! No fair.

      Then there is me. The one thing I have learned about writing novels is that when you have to have some notion of where this story is going to end. Why start a journey if you don't have a destination? So after Chapter One, I make a lot of notes as to how I think the story will end.

     So now I have a beginning, and a possible destination. I assemble as much information as I can as to how to get there. I get to know my characters (which I have written about earlier), and my setting. I try to anticipate any specialized information I might need. Then ever so slowly, I creep along from Point A to Point B. Only moving as quickly as my headlights allow.

      NaNoWriMo encourages setting a goal of so many words per day, every day. I've never really had much luck with that. When I have written say 1500 words per day, every day, by the end of the month, I find I have about 200 pages of some pretty funny characters and description, but no story. No end in sight.

      NaNoWriMo discourages revising as you go. I'm all for that. I could spend Eternity polishing that perfect first chapter. I do make a lot of "pit stops" to make sure I am still heading towards my last chapter. I do have a compass in my car,(and head) so I can tell if I am heading north or south) Or. . .

     I may discover that I don't want to go to Raleigh after all(although in the case of Regional Skating, I didn't have much choice....I had to find Raleigh!).  Sometimes my characters start telling me where they are going. I always let them. As I've said, forcing characters is like forcing my size 8 foot into a size 6 shoe, just because I like the shoes.  It can be done, but not for long, and the result is not pretty.

     In both Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, my characters bumped me out of the driver's seat for the last third of the book. I am embarrassed to remember how I thought those books were going to end. I think that by the time you are two thirds of the way through, you know your characters so well, that they just hijack your mind and finish the story for you. At least that's what's happened for me so far. It was if I started out for San Francisco and wound up in Omaha. And discovered that Omaha was exactly the right place to be.

     Writing novels is hard. I am constantly driving up dead-ends...but I've learned to find a place to turn around and re-group. I hit roadblocks; I suddenly discover I absolutely need to know something like World War I field medical procedures. (No kidding....this is my current roadblock.) Eventually I decide that I can go another route, or I find the necessary information.

    Sometimes I discover a character in the backseat who hasn't spoken in a long time. I stop the car and see what the problem is. Are they still part of the story, or do they need to be left by the side of the road? (I know it sounds ruthless, but your novel can't drag around dead weight.)

     Right now I am working on two novels, simultaneously, since they have the same settings and characters, albeit the time frames are different. I have been switching off every time I hit a roadblock. The result is I have 2/3 of two novels. I am putting pedal to the metal now on only one now(having removed a roadblock last week). I know where I am going, but I am still driving at night. Cautiously, and focusing only what I can see in my headlights.

     Maybe I can NaNo that last third this month. Now that is a possibility. . .

     Happy NaNoWriMo, fellow writers. Keep your headlights on.

     P.S.  My daughter won silver in her competition level.
      Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Beth said...

I like the following ideas, which I think help a writer get through a novel with something like an order:

1. Write the last chapter first. That way you at least have a large city to aim for as you drive in the dark.

2. Use 3 x 5 cards (please note that before I tried this I hated 3 x 5 cards) and write out brief scene descriptions, in no particular order, but as many as you can brainstorm out there. Do this day after day until you have a stack of about 50. Start organizing them and experimenting with how they best fit together. This won't work for Nanowrimo unless you do it in advance, but at least it gives you a little idea of where you could go.

Carmela Martino said...

Congrats to your daughter, and thanks for sharing the photo, MA. And I'm thrilled to hear you removed a roadblock in your story last week.
Beth, thanks for sharing your tips. I'll have more to say on the topic on Wednesday.

cindyja said...

I loved reading your 'driving to the competition' story. My heart was in my throat. Congratulations to your daughter and you. Motherhood--gotta love it!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Congrats to your daughter! I love the way you used that scary, exhausting drive to mirror your writing process. My internal critic for driving is almost as bad as the one I carry for writing. Great post!