Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?
I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.
Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.
So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.
The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.
Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.
Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.
Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.
It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right. In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.
Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.
Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.