by David Armand
I’m currently making my third novel: I’m about 100 pages in, close to 30,000 words. I use the word “making” intentionally, as I believe that, like poetry, the novel (and any artifact) is a “made” thing. Any creator, therefore, is a poet. God is a poet.
Writing novels can be like laying bricks, carefully placing one square at a time and adhering those bricks together with mortar. But every novelist’s process is different, however.
I get asked a lot how I put together my books: when people learn that I have two kids, two jobs, and myriad other responsibilities and obligations, they often seem astounded by the fact that I find time to write. I think people who say they don’t have time for something are lying (maybe subconsciously and to themselves), but lying nonetheless. If you really care about something, you’ll find time to do it.
And writing isn’t always about sitting in front of a keyboard and making words, sentences, paragraphs. Writing (for the real writer) happens twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It never takes a break. You, as a writer, are always noticing images, dialogue, stories (I hate using the term “ideas” because writing based on ideas is gimmicky and flat) and recording them in your mind for later use.
Personally, my process goes like this: I read all the time. When I’m reading a book that is particularly well-written (one, say, by Cormac McCarthy), I keep a pen and a piece of paper or an index card and I write down every word that resonates with me. For example, when I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for the first time, I had about six or seven note cards with words like spurtle, piggin, and scarp written on them. Those words resonated with me, had a certain feeling attached to them, a feeling I knew I wanted to have in my work-in-progress at the time. Those words become the bricks that started to make the wall of the novel. Too many writers today seem to forget the utter power that a single word (and the right word) contains, and therefore they miss the mark because their focus is too heavy on story or gimmick or idea that they forget why they came to the page in the first place: language and the fearless worship of it.
I also keep notes of names that sound/feel right to me. I make mental notes of images that I come across in everyday life and I use those in my writing.
I don’t write every day. That is, I don’t sit down in front of the keyboard every day and put words together. But I feel as if I am writing every day, as I am always thinking about stories and how to make them. When I do physically sit down to write, I do so very methodically and pragmatically. While I don’t know what I’m going to write beforehand, I do know what I’m working on (a novel, excerpting a portion of a novel-in-progress to make a salable short story, etc.) and I do so without outlines or any notion of where the day’s work is going or is going to lead me. That’s where the excitement/emotion comes in. However, it never comes directly from an emotion that I may be feeling at the time. That, to me, is just self-indulgent: if you do that, you might as well just keep a diary. The feeling in a good work of art comes from the exhilaration of not knowing, stepping out on a limb, taking a risk, being fearless. Anything else is just trite, boring.
I keep close record of my daily word count and track my progress (or lack thereof) very closely. I always know where I stand with word count and page number, and I have a general sense of how much longer it will take to get to the end of what I’m doing. For example, I know when I am working on a shorter work, or one that will require more than 200 pages in order to say it right.
While working, I keep my index cards and notes close by, referring to them for the right word or image as I go. I do this until the book is complete. Then I start to think about structure and how the story is told. I drew maps for my first two novels, then tracked the narrative across those maps to get an idea of the arc of the story. (I also wanted to make sure I had everything geographically right, since all of my work takes place in the same area of Washington Parish in southeast Louisiana.) I printed out hard copies of the novels and marked them up with a red pen, then a black pen, then used a highlighter to mark off the changes I accepted and ultimately made to the manuscript. It’s important to be organized and methodical about how you write. Since writing is so difficult and so messy (I have drawers and drawers full of file folders with various drafts of stories & novels and notes and even newspaper clippings and sketches of items I described, etc.), it is important to have some sense of control, some sense of order, method.
I haven’t gotten to that point on the third novel yet, but I’m already thinking about structure (the novel so far is told in short parabolic sections) and so I’m thinking about physically cutting out those sections after I print off what I have so far, and then taping those sections on the wall in my office: then I’ll move the sections around like those word magnets on a refrigerator door until all the sections are in their right place. (Faulkner famously made this crayon outline of A Fable on his office wall in Rowan Oak):
I want this next book, like the previous two, to be told out of chronological order, as a novel is never really interesting unless it experiments with time and also with language. The true artist must be fearless.
To me, it would be pretty easy to write a straightforward realistic novel, told in plain language. But that would also be boring. Nothing new.