The Questions I’m Asked—and Not Asked Enough—About Novel Writing

There are so many questions that people have asked me about my writing process—and even more that I wish people would ask, about my process, so I could clarify it for myself. I talk to friends about my way of working; even though other writers have their own ways of doing things, it’s interesting to compare theirs to mine. 

Because National Novel Writing Month is galloping on, here is some unsolicited advice from someone who has been there—and is now going back for her second round.

What inspires you to write novels?

In my new novel, I wanted to write about the world I grew up in in Greenwich Village. There were so many contradictory messages between the ethos of the Village (“we’re cooler than you!”) and the progressive talk that went on all around me, and the reality of what I faced growing up in this hot house. I deal with two real murderers who are part of the Very Overrated Beat Poets. William Burroughs and Lucien Carr both killed people and paid no price for that. I’m a big Justice groupie. I like Justice. I couldn’t find much in my exploration of these four men. 

Then there was the injustice in being alive in the late 20th century in the “hippest place on earth” and finding some very arcane attitudes towards women. Men showed me their penises in situations which were somewhere between crazy and disgusting. Men on the subway regularly showed me their package, I thought then as I think now – “do you have an itch? We’re on the IRT local, what is anybody supposed to get from seeing your little thingy?” (I ask now, with much more anger, “what are the proud boys proud of?” Can I see it please?)

The book ended up teaching me more than I can describe here. I hope when you write you learn from yourself. You know more than anybody else can know about what’s inside of you. What’s important to you, what makes your soul rest easy.  

You’re a feminist and a writer. How do I bring my values to the page without being put in a box?

I guess I write feminist novels, but I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s just because my two protagonists have been women that I qualify as a feminist writer. My closest friends know I find terrible contradictions in the fact that many women are still decidedly not feminist, but either live in the 1950’s and go home in time for supper with the Mister, or they’re narrow in their view of the world and the cosmos we are part of. By definition for me, a feminist is smart, broad in their thinking, caring about all creatures on the planet. Not all women fit the bill—but I am not interested in Male Heavy novels about blubber on Moby Dick, or hunting. 

When I start writing anything, I ask myself what I want to say to the world. I write about women because the future I seek is one where they are more central to the stories told across this world.

I keep hearing “show, don’t tell.” How do I actually write vivid scenes?

I knew when I set out to write The Road Not Taken that I wanted my novel to be interesting, complex, and include fantasy and other world possibilities. (This is true of my next novel, too.) When I was first finding my way, I began to look at playwriting, which I did for many years, and try to see the difference in the creative process between a play and a novel. Both have characters, dialogue, conflict, scenes or chapters, movement or plot and story line, surprises, and a beginning, middle and end. 

If you want to write a novel, use any experience you have as a writer to inform your process. For me, plays and documentaries, comic sketches, blogs, I’ve written them all and they are all part of my subconscious tool kit when I write a novel. (I don’t want to sound too pompous here, I’ve written two novels, not a library full). To new novelists my advice is: Find your own toolkit based on anything you’ve written, liked reading, even TV or film can inform your story telling.

Both forms require you to show, not tell the story. Good. Both forms, for me at least, need to be about something important that I want to say. Ultimately, the similarities between the components of a play and a novel to ease me into the new form I was taking up. And that helped me a lot. The characters in a book have a lot of the same prerequisites as characters in a play. The story or plot has to remain on a trajectory toward something, and there has to be conflict, and hopefully some fun. (Sex scenes are helpful in both forms.)

How do you build a world that feels real, even though it’s entirely or partially fantastical?

I write fiction with a heavy dose of fantasy, even in the semi-autobiographical novel I just wrote. Sometimes it’s for a pragmatic reason: the person I am writing about is alive and might not like what I write about them. Mostly it’s for my own need to keep my stories exciting and complex while I pour my heart out about the things that matter most to me. 

Life is infinite, there is a Time Space Continuum on which every moment of human history exists. It is the greatest streaming device ever invented. One problem, and this is straight from Albert Einstein, who should know—you can only go back in Time. Until we have equipment that can outrun the speed of light, we won’t be able to see into the Future. That doesn’t stop me. I’m not writing science articles, I’m writing stories, and that means I can go in and out of any Time or Space I want. Also good. And a lot of fun.

The only rule? Make sure you know when you sit down that you know what you want to say next. It will make sense if you think of it like a play—the reader has to see how we got from one moment to the next, even if the in-between is a wild ride through your imagination.

If you want to know more specifics about my process, or want to share your process with me, let me know.  And then, get back to work on your work!

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