Monday, October 7, 2013

How to Write a Novel - Part 2

So previously I said, "How do you write a novel? That's easy--put a bunch of words onto paper, so they form a complete story that other people will want to invest their time and energy in reading." Okay, that was easy to say, but way, way harder to do.

"Out of Time" started out about fifteen years ago as a short story about a young, teenaged boy who was forced to spend a summer in a remote, almost ghost-town on Lake Superior. His mother had just lost her husband to an accident, so she decided to return to the town where she'd grown up and where her parents--our young protagonist's grandparents--still lived. The boy (then named Jamey) was pretty miserable about the whole experience; after all, he's fourteen, it's summer holidays but, instead of hanging with his friends back in the city he's stuck in this tiny, mostly derelict community in the middle of nowhere. This leads to inevitable conflict with his mother, heightened by the fact they've both lost someone they love; she just wants to rest and heal, while he wants to immerse himself in the life of a young teenager to try and escape his pain.

Okay, good set-up. Immediate conflict, interesting setting, not too many characters to service. As it stands, though, it's missing something--a plot, something to drive the action forward. Without that, it risks becoming a slice-of-life piece, and there's way too many of those masquerading as stories already. Well, I write fantasy, so after some thought I decided to introduce a fantastic element to push things along. After some false starts, I finally hit on the idea of drawing on the setting itself. Lake Superior has a long history involving Aboriginal people, explorers, voyageurs and the fur trade, the railroad that linked Canada into a nation, mining, lumber, trapping, fishing.... What if, I reasoned, Jamey could see ghosts? What if he could meet some ghosts from the region's past? I made a list. An Aboriginal person from pre-European times. An early explorer, opening up the country. A voyageur. Someone who'd worked on building the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the rugged Shield country of the area. Maybe a miner or a trapper. And, drawing on a more recent aspect of the area's history, how about a German POW from World War Two, since there were, indeed, several POW camps that operated in the region in the 1940s. This seemed like a good line-up of interesting characters, all linked by the fact they'd died close to where Jamey was stuck spending his summer. Now I had a fantasy plot to use to drive things on. Jamey would meet these people, interact with them, learn things from them, grow as a character. Some of those interactions might be dangerous, creating more conflict. Perfect!

Trouble was, this was no longer a short story. This was going to be much longer, probably a novel. I can write a novel, I thought. So I started that process, putting a bunch of words on paper, trying to write a story people wanted to invest time and energy in reading.

I sputtered along, off and on, for about three years. I put a lot of words on paper. Trouble was, even I was finding it all that interesting. Something wasn't working, wasn't right. I plugged away at it for another year or so, then gave up and moved onto other things. Obviously, I just didn't have a story here, just a much bigger "slice of life" than I'd thought I had.

Fast forward to 2009. I'd just finished the first draft of a different novel (one I'm still shopping around) and I needed a new project. Looking back through my notes, I rediscovered Jamey and his summer meeting ghosts around Lake Superior. Thanks to about nine years of distance, I was able to look at it and immediately see what the problem was. The piece had no real focus. There were too many characters. I was trying to do too many things. I'd lost sight of the fact that my original, gut reaction--there were just a couple of characters, Jamey and his mother--was a good one. I'd let the story become too diffuse. Okay, easy enough...tighten the focus back on Jamey and...his mother?

Okay, but I write fantasy and wanted a fantasy element. How about a focus on Jamey and a different character? I had many to choose from, but the one that intrigued me was the pre-European Aboriginal person. And that immediately tweaked a memory about something I'd read in a great book, "Ojibway Heritage" by renowned Aboriginal scholar and writer Basil Johnston. He describe the "vision quest", a sacred undertaking of Ojibway males when they're boys, usually twelve to fourteen or so years old. They would go to a place considered close to the spirit world and hold a four day vigil, seeking to receive the vision that would guide them through the rest of their lives. This was perfect! Jamey could meet a boy his age, who had died while on his vision quest. Now I have a much tighter, more focused story. Again, I start putting words on paper....

And things begin to flow. As they do, things also begin to change. Jamey becomes Riley (the reason I name him Riley becomes evident in the book, and I don't want to give it away). The Ojibway boy, Peetwonikwot (Ojibway for "Gathering Cloud"; he ends up being called just Cloud in the story), starts out as a ghost in Riley's time, but soon comes back to life in his own time. Riley now meets up with Cloud across time (again, I won't say the book!) And Riley's mother disappears from the story, replaced by his father; both boys have somewhat difficult relationships with their fathers, which I wanted to build into the story of each and of both of them together.

By late 2010, I end up with a first draft, just under 100,000 words, of a story then-titled just "Riley". A bunch of words--a whole bunch of words--on paper. Awesome.

Trouble is, it's basically crap. No one's going to want to read this. And that leads to my next great revelation about writing a novel, which I'll cover next time.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the book, so it was fun to see how it grew out of a short story, changing along the way.