One of the things about writing fiction that the general public seems to be largely unaware of is the countless hours of writing that happen before the novel or story comes out. Cathy Day has a rule for this. She says that the first 50,000 words are when the writer finds her novel. I agree with the theory, obviously, but I feel like it’s dangerous to make it a specific number of words. For some writers, it will be less. For others, it will be more.
Writing can happen in thought, too. I’ve found that I write during life, inside. I find things out about my characters, so sometimes I get a little short cut. Make no mistake, I still have to dig into the trenches with them, and let them meet each other and themselves and eventually me. Julianna Baggot talks about writing without writing here.
Something I’ve tried to explain to clients with massively huge manuscripts is yes, you’ve done all this insane amounts of writing. But that was for you and your characters not for your book. Now you have to find the book in all of this.
That part is really hard.
In college, I used to say that I get 10 usable words for every thousand. That ratio has gotten better with time and practice, and I expect it’ll get better still.
So since I’m out of my old stories and nearing 10,000 words of my novel, which means that I’ll probably write 200,000 or so more before I have something I care to polish, I’m going to use my Free Fiction days to share the process with you.
I generally find the action to be intuitive once I have my characters, so the warmup writing tends to be my characters looking at stuff, and telling me who they are and what makes them go. So far, these characters have asserted themselves in my life and thinking in aggressive ways.
At the moment, I’m working from the idea that this book will be about a group of female friends who play on a Bocce League. I got the idea for it from hanging around with my friends on our Quizzo team, but as I write, it becomes clear that the main similarities between my friends and I and the women in my book are that there’s a similar number (4-6 in life, and 4 in my book), and they are on a competitive team with fairly low stakes (free beer). But so far, the women in my book are showing themselves to be quite different from me and my motley friends.
This character is Sylvie. Sylvie’s in her 40s. Something about her that hasn’t wormed its way into the book yet is that she drives a late-model Nissan Pickup Truck with all kinds of bumper stickers on it. Some of these are socially antagonistic, and some are enviro-political. She’s not really at ease in her life, even though she feels like she should be.
It’s an unseasonably warm February day and Sylvie watches her pre teens inhabit the yard with her neighbor’s pre teens. Spots of snow melt in the grass, remnants from the last two-inch snow in an otherwise snowless winter. Her son’s jeans are streaked with mud, and she watches his angly, side-leaning run indicate a thing about him she’s almost not willing to face.
Her daughter’s freshly swollen chest is hidden under a t-shirt that hangs to her knees, and the two eye off with the neighbor kids, a boy and girl, similar ages, in some queer version of dodgeball meets flag football.
She remembers her own youth when going outside meant kneeling near the goats, eating sour grass and being perfectly still. She remembers being immediately too self conscious to play with the other kids upon entering puberty, and she’s joyed that Melanie is comfortable enough in her skin to throw on a huge t-shirt and try to pretend it’s not happening.
Sylvie’s son, John, is wearing a red, v-necked soccer jersey, tight against his ribs and his long, lean waist. His fourteen-year-old shoulders spread beneath his acned face. He watches John’s eyes scan the other boy’s jeans, his interest in the other girl cursory, ill-fitting.
Christ, what’ll I tell Bear? Her husband was a large, worked as a foreman on a gas rig. Full of the swagger of manliness, drinking beer out of cans on principle and ordering his steak well-cooked. Last year on his birthday, John requested steak medium-rare, and Bear almost grounded the poor kid.
“Why would you care how he likes his steak? I can still cook yours well.” She told him.
“It ain’t right.” Said Bear.
“It’s what he likes.” Sylvie remembered how Bear’s excessive manliness was such a welcome departure from her previous lovers. She’d been the sort of woman to have a lean, smooth, intellectual partner. One with piles of books and a nuanced appreciation of high culture. A few weeks before meeting Bear at a hunting lodge, where she went to research a specific species of wolf for the National Wildlife Federation on a Rhoades Scholarship, she’d caught her last partner with (another) grad student. That one was only 22, and she looked practically pubescent to Sylvie’s 33-year-old eyes. She had juvenile freckles and red curly hair, and wore a pair of leg warmers under a purple cotton skirt. Her hips still had the leaner swell of an adolescent.
Bear had sauntered up to her with a cold can of Bud and wrapped her fingers around it. His knit cap met his sideburns and his eyes crinkled with warmth and simple adoration. “I brought you a beer.”
Such a far cry from trying to seem uninterested while impressing her with references to Gould or Rorschach.
“You’re welcome,” he’d slipped his hand around her shoulders, giving her a half hug, expressing possessiveness and affection.
She thought about the way even his impulses toward manners were different. No pretense of, “Certainly!” or “Of Course!”
She found in the proceeding weeks that she was smitten by his demonstrative approach to love. It was nearly wordless. She wanted it because he wanted to listen to her talk for hours. She didn’t know yet that it would get boring that he didn’t give anything back, didn’t interact. Just eyed her with emphatic purity. She hates herself that it isn’t enough. She wants it to be as much as she wants not to have to tell Bear that their only son was likely gay.
For her part, Sylvie is more or less pleased. Not for the social trauma John is sure to face, nor for the fact that it’s not legal for him to marry. That it’ll be difficult to adopt before he’s almost forty. That he has a statistically increased risk of getting HIV. But John is a healthy, clever boy. He will find his way. She loves that he does not seem to be embarrassed at his feelings. He is tentative to be sure, but most fourteen-year-olds are tentative about sexuality.