When Writing, Trust Your Instincts

Writing a novel is as simple as breathing and as difficult as living. It seems so easy when the ideas are rattling around in your head, when characters suddenly show up when you least expect them and tell you things you wish you didn’t know. And they always sit down on your shoulder and begin whispering when you can’t find a pencil and have no idea where your notebook is, and you’re afraid they will leave again before they can spill the secrets that have kept you in the dark for the past forty-six pages. No one ever thinks the same. No one writes the same. There is no magic formula. Darcie Chan and Joyce Yarrow, however, provide invaluable insights into the process they use while traveling through the pages of their novels – one word at a time.

Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River Recluse: Given that I’ve completed only one novel thus far, I’m not sure that I have a fully-evolved writing process just yet.  But, as of this point, I first take some time developing an idea in my mind before I’m ready to put it on paper.

After I come up with an idea for the central story arc, I think about sub-plots and create initial profiles for the necessary characters.  Once I feel comfortable with my concepts for the main plot and characters (which happens once I know how the story will begin, who will be involved in each plot and sub-plot, and how each plot within the story will be resolved), I write out a chapter-by-chapter outline.

Only then do I start writing.

My outline generally becomes more detailed as I work my way through the story and other ideas or twists come to mind.  So far, it’s taken me a few months from the time I first conceive an idea for a story until I finish my first outline and actually start writing.

Joyce Yarrow, author of Code of Thieves and Ask the Dead: Beginning a book is like taking a wrong turn on the way home from the airport. You may end up in a bad neighborhood, and run out of gas before you find your way out, or you may decide this is the place for you and settle in to get your work done. In that case, everything you need is right there… a church or temple as the case may be, a bodega or bordello depending on your mood, and enough shady characters to balance the host of heroes mandated by the current vogue in publishing.

Your family will miss you, but they’re used to it. Whether you check into a flea-bitten SRO or a gilded mansion on the edge of town is entirely up to you. But do not fail to write yourself a note saying something like: My surroundings are entirely illusory and I can return to reality at any time. Post it on the fridge, just in case.

As for the actual writing, for me it is a process of unlearning, each and every time. Like a kitten refusing to move when attached to a leash, whatever has worked for me in the past declines to take the first step on the new journey. I’m on my own and the sooner I accept this the better. I wrote Ask the Dead in the first person, present tense, a technique that shot the story forward at bullet speed.  I tried the same thing with The Last Matryoshka (aka Code of Thieves) and ended up tossing the first 30,000 words and switching to past tense. My new book, co-written with Indian journalist Arindam Roy, is set in India, the US and Canada, and is a saga told from multiple points of view.

I write both literary fiction and mysteries and have found them remarkably similar in structure. Why not, since life is the ultimate mystery. As long as my protagonist has something at stake, something to believe in, something challenging her belief in herself and a compelling reason to put herself at risk, the story will move forward. When I feel blocked, I seek out the noisiest coffee house, park bench, or subway car I can find, and use the white noise to focus my mind.

A few consistent rules that work for me are:

Outline only when events begin to contradict each other and continuity is in danger.

Develop your characters fully and they will reward you by revealing your plot and bringing life to every moment on the page

When a story is not climbing toward a peak of some kind there had better be a deep ravine up ahead.

Never write in a vacuum. Even the most insular love story takes place somewhere. Rub the lantern fervently and often, and with the help of your imagination the world you create will reveal and challenge your characters and enchant your readers. My own genie has whisked me off to Russia and India on life-changing, so called ‘book research’ trips for which I will be ever grateful.

Above all, trust your instincts and don’t think too much.

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  • Fascinating insights! As one who hasn’t yet tackled the novel, this is wonderful to read. How other people go about it can only be a help to me when I finally begin! Thanks, Caleb, Darcie and Joyce!

    • Jo: It’s time you began. Write three pages a day. That’s not much. And within six months, the novel will be finished. Now six months is going to pass, and I hope we have a Jo VonBargen novel to read. I’ve already marked it on my calendar.

      • Caleb, you sneaky devil! Your powers of persuasion are stellar. I guess I never stopped to consider that you eat an elephant one bite at a time. The overall task was somehow daunting. But since you put it this way, it might get done. That six months will pass whether I do anything worthwhile or not, so why not give it a shot? I’ll think on it, my friend!

        • Jo: You could be writing while you’re thinking. Just jump in the ocean and see where the tides take you.

  • Christina Carson

    I think writing is the most open-ended of all the arts as the three gals above make so clear. How exciting to be a part of that.

    • Christina: No two minds ever run in the same direction very long. We all take forks in the road, and we seldom take the same forks. Yet, which writing a book, we always get to the end in spite of the trip.

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