When I speak to a group of readers, or to writers in a workshop, I often use a quilt analogy to describe the challenge of writing a novel: “Writing a novel is like creating a king-sized quilt in a four-by-four room.” Even if you’re not a quilter (as I am not), it still offers a glimpse into the difficulties a writer might encounter in the process.
It’s as difficult for a writer to see his or her entire novel project at once as it is to lay out a large quilt in a small room. There just isn’t space. One must look at it in sections, and plan each piece with the whole project in mind. The seams must all meet in the right places so the overall pattern is intact.
I started my first book not knowing anything about writing a novel, but soon realized I had to develop some kind of system to keep things in order. I had to know the time of year of each scene (so I’d know if the characters would go on a sleigh ride or a buggy ride). I wanted to correlate certain plot points with historic events to maintain accuracy and credibility. I needed to aim for consistency, continuity, flow, integrity and chronology, to name a few, but how could I accomplish these things, especially in such a large work?
Short answer: lists. Lots of lists, or excel sheets, or binders or Scrivener.
For example, since my books are historical fiction, I created a timeline with a sheet for each year and a narrow column with the month of the year down the middle of the page, lengthwise. On the left I listed political/world events that happened in that month, while on the right I listed the events of my story.
I have since discovered that novel writers have a plethora of methods foe keeping track of details. It’s helpful to see how others do it, and then adapt these methods to your own writing. What works for me does not necessarily work for you, but we need some kind of plan.
This morning on Facebook someone posted a quote by author Patti Hill: “Writing a novel…is like wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar.” After writing a few more novels, I must concur. It’s never easy. No matter how you describe it, writing a novel is messy and frustrating, and there will be times you just want to ask Grandma to finish the quilt for you, or find a fisherman to incapacitate the octopus or grab a bigger jar, but you won’t. I won’t. We’ll just keep trying, discovering, inventing, creating and praying until at long last, we see the finished product.
And it will be worth it…
I needed a break from my novel, so I wrote a poem, just a snatch of creativity that I can see the entirety of in half a page:
YOU sing to me and I catch the phrase
Although the melody is muted…
This morning’s sky’s been rinsed
Clean as a kindergartner’s face
And just as beaming.
On the side of the road
Naughty dandelions peep
From between blades of glistening grass
At a red-winged blackbird
Sunning herself on a fencepost
And my dog dashes through puddles.
The rain is done.
©Janice L. Dick
May 29, 2012