Q&A Part One: The Birth of the Novel

By | July 29, 2012

I didn’t set out to write a novel per se. I didn’t even set out to write anything at all. But the novel came to be because some grew and developed over time.

Some time in late 2009 I and a few other people set up a writers’ group based in Snoqualmie, Washington called The Writers Bloc. Apart from the very clever name (invented by me) we determined to simply write and see what might happen. We brought in some of our existing writing and read it to the group for approval and criticism, shared interesting literary moments of the week with each other, such as an intriguing photo or scene, or perhaps a clever headline or story. And in each session we’d write a short story based upon a prompt.

This was my first exposure to rapid writing. While I do write for a living, it is not creative writing, and accuracy is emphasized over speed (although I do have deadlines, just like every other writer). It was an enjoyable challenge, and I thrived on it.

Over the course of the months I wrote a half-dozen short stories, all based upon a prompt I myself would not know until the moment we started. Sometimes we would be directed on a particular theme, or challenged to try to write in a viewpoint, theme, or tone we weren’t used to, but most of the time it was simply “Here’s the prompt…now GO!”, and we’d have 15 minutes to produce something rational and story-like.

Writing to a time-deadline like this is interesting. You have to have the story somewhat developed when you start typing. Something in you has to be already setting out your characters and your plots as soon as you hear the prompt—there is no time to be stumped or to sketch out the story arc. You have to begin.

Oh, and did I mention that at the end we’d read our stories aloud to each other (we HAD to), critique them, and then informally vote on the best? So you had that pressure to be as good as your peers—and even to “win” the writing session. (Yes, it’s like that no matter where you go: writers are always comparing ourselves to other writers, and a review is like a posing mirror for a body-builder.)

So my participation in these short writing sessions helped me to hone my skills in rapid writing. Somehow my mind knew how to make the stories form an arc: there was always a beginning, a middle, a crisis, a solution, and an end. Somehow it just always worked out.

Then in February 2010 we were sitting around the table and this prompt was dropped: “The car drove through the STOP sign as if it wasn’t there.”

And the world of Henry Valentine opened up. I saw the dust and cinders flying as the Buick flew by. I saw the STOP sign in his hand, the outrage on his face as the car disobeyed the rules Henry stood for and guarded. His life suddenly lay out before me, and I saw everything he was, what he was about to be challenged by, his era, his town, his family—and his confrontation.

I wrote furiously in those fifteen minutes, and I think I wrote almost 1500 words. (I have the story somewhere. It’ s the original draft and as all things draft, isn’t something for publication.)

I knew the story I wrote was just the beginning of a much larger story—a novel—but I wasn’t sure how to get it in shape.

Then NaNoWriMo 2010 rolled around. And by that time I had also joined another writing group in the Snoqualmie Valley, called SnoValley Writes! (The exclamation point is part of the name. It adds drama.)

This group met semi-monthly, and while we didn’t do speed-writing, we did talk about writing and our own works. And I was encouraged (well, pressured) into joining NaNoWriMo 2010 through them.

It also turned out that I had changed locations in my job so that driving to work was no longer an option, but instead a bus ride was needed. And that bus ride was 90 or 120 minutes each way.

So in November of 2010 I wrote for 3 hours a day during my journey, and the story of Henry Valentine just flowed. I hit the 50,000 word mark by November 22, and by the end of the month I had 85,000 words.

So, that is how the draft of Stars in the Texas Sky began.

In future Q&As I’ll explain how the vision and theme of the novel came together.

Stay tuned.

Written from my hotel room in Luxembourg Sunday, July 29, 2012