Something Novel: Let’s Talk About Writing Books

After writing plays and documentaries, the word “novel” sounded pretentious to me. I just kept calling it a “book.” But now that I have finished my second novel, the word falls sweetly on my ears. In fact, being a novelist feels like the role of my lifetime.

How do you start? How do you change? How do you move from one form of writing to another? How do you bring characters, places, feelings to life? And how do you do this when the world we live in so often feels like it has fallen into a kind of chaos?

If you have any of these questions, rest assured that you’re a novelist, too.

I started out as a theatre artist—tap dancing, teaching jazz dance, writing and performing in plays in high school. Before I knew it, I had grown up, formed a theatre company, and become a playwright. I dropped the tapping and stepped off stage — but behind the curtain, the complexity of production was overwhelming for me. I got grants and co-productions at good theatres, found talented colleagues, but the play itself has demands: the characters need to be in a juxtaposition for conflict, drama, sex, comedy. I tried to say something in each play about our world. This is hard enough without getting an audience, convincing actors they don’t look bad in their costumes, and dealing with the press.

Eventually, I wanted to stop. I had done a play every two years, and in between wrote documentaries about the role of women around the world. I was tired. But I am a writer, and I had always been a storyteller. (As a little kid, I was the most popular at lunch break. Even people who didn’t like me would sit at my table while I ate and told a story I was making up as I chewed.)

So I decided to write a novel—to try and tell one of the stories I wanted to tell without all the complexity of production. And I wrote The Road Not Taken—a crazy, surreal tale about a 50-year-old female protagonist. Writing a novel allowed me to leave the real world behind and create a world I liked better. And there were no limits, no egos, no budgets, no logistical or contractual constraints, no costumes. I wrote a piece of pop culture—with time travel, mythological creatures, dead painters come back to life. 

I was lucky to have a publisher willing to put it into the world. And I was extra lucky to find two people who helped me bring the book forward to the public. The whole experience was so easy compared to herding actors, begging for audiences, and watching people change my dialogue every night. My novel characters said exactly what I wrote, every time I read the page. None complained to me about their role, their costume, or another actor. I was in my own subconscious mind with a bunch of characters who liked me enough to tell the story for me.

I am not a suffering writer. The process for The Road was mostly pleasure: First, I thought a lot about what to write, dreaming up plot twists and people. Then I gave myself notes (that I never referred to again) and finally found the story.

Here’s why I believe in spells, and charms, and everything metaphysical about art: inside of me, and I think inside of everybody, there are stories, or songs, or paintings. Inside all of us is the unconscious stuff begging to be shared. It is a sheer joy to know that when I do the set-up of the main characters, and the main story line, I can sit at my computer and go into a spell. Sometimes when I read what I wrote the day before I cannot recognize the words. They come from very deep inside me, and I can’t just access them, they have to show up.

November is National Novel Writing Month—and I want to encourage anyone reading this to take the dive and commit to it if you feel at all tempted. If you ever want to write a novel, you will find your own way. As November rolls on, I will continue to talk about my process in the hopes that it will give people ways to look at their own process. Or ways to look at my process and laugh! 

If you have questions for me about writing, getting published, and weaving words—bring them on! Leave questions for me in the comments here, on Instagram, or even on Twitter and I’ll try to answer them while you’re busy putting the pencil to the page! (Or the pen to the page. Or the finger to the keys.)

It has been such a delight sharing my first novel with the world. And I can’t wait to share my next with you. And while I tinker with my own draft—go write a novel I can read, please!

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