Drafting my forthcoming novel NOUS NOUS (October 19 from Braddock Avenue Books) was unlike drafting any other novel I’ve written. You see, I originally composed the book in a Novel Writing Workshop class, one in which I asked my students to complete a full draft in one 13-week semester. I knew it would be an exciting challenge for the students, but I also knew that if I was going to ask that effort from them, I should ask it from myself.
I required 4500 words a week. Hardly undoable, but a hurdle for any busy person, student or professor. My way of handling that challenge—and it was a hardly a pre-planned choice—was to braid my book. I took one character’s POV as far as I could, and then, not knowing what else to do, switched POVs. The idea at the time was to simply give my book renewed material, a renewed push. I just wanted to keep going, keep making the word count. Wonder of wonders, by leap-frogging from perspective to perspective (there ended up being four key characters) I found that the words took care of themselves.
But the benefit to my project was not only, or even mainly, the word counts I managed. What I discovered as I went along was that the braiding provided just the note of suspense that was ideal for this novel, in which crime plays such a prominent role. Plotting was never—and still isn’t—my strong suit. The forced braiding instilled a much tighter story into my book, more seamless than I would have otherwise managed. With each successive chapter, as I looked for ways to make the braids coordinate, I also found fruitful ways to tease the suspense, force the reader to ask questions and wait for answers. After all, there isn’t an author in existence who doesn’t want his readers anxious to find out what happens next. With a braided structure, it became easy to withhold the “next” for as long as I wanted.
Chris Baty—the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NanNoWriMo) and the author of the book NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM!—loves to extol the virtues of urgency. He explains how every year at the start of NanNoWriMo he receives messages from writers who tell him they have decided not to take on a certain beloved novel writing project. They don’t want to mess it up, they say. They want to give it the time it deserves. Baty says that when he hears such words, he knows he’s listening to someone who will never get their project done. Because it has turned into something precious. The messy, desperate urgency of novel writing will never match their pristine pre-conceptions.
Indeed, my experience with NOUS NOUS taught me that overt pressure might just create the kind of creative cauldron that brings out the best in a person, forces them to find solutions that aren’t merely expeditious but finally add up to craft.
Written by JOHN VANDERSLICE
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Thanks for this illumination, John. I still think about a student I had in tutorial a few years back. She was planning a capstone project in her (STEM) major. But when I asked about alternatives, she said she had big plans to someday write her grandmother’s fascinating life. The more she told me about this woman, the more excited I got. Here’s your chance, I told the student. You have to write a capstone — you have the time — you have the resources! But no. She wanted to do it right. She didn’t feel like she was ready. It would be the great work, the magnum opus, too precious (your wording is exactly right) for this undergraduate assignment. Then just get it started, I argued. Write part of it, or write the first draft, or do the research into one piece and write about that experience! Nope. Couldn’t persuade her. I know in the pit of my stomach that the story of this woman’s life will never see the light of day, and I’m simultaneously mad and sad about it.
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