Q&A Part Two: The Birth of the Novel

By | August 3, 2012

The book Stars in the Texas Sky is about growing up in the small Texas town of Windmill in 1952.

Buy it here as  Kindle download: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008NNSU3U

Buy it here as a brand-new paperback from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Stars-Texas-Sky-Stephen-Matlock/dp/1477458786

When I started writing, I can’t say I knew how the book would end. The story flowed like water, scene by scene, and the people just walked into the book when they needed to appear. I knew I had to have conflicts and crises in the life of Henry Valentine, the protagonist, but I didn’t really have an idea of what those might be.

I sketched out the story in my head, mostly, but used Scrivener to write the novel. So it looked like this:

  • Scene A: Henry at the gate. Introduction to the character and discomfort of Henry Valentine. Strong, rule-driven, protector.
  • Scene B: Benjamin takes the bat. Introduction to Benjamin, the ordinary boy who also happens to be black.
  • Scene C: The mayor’s wife and the sheriff come in to illustrate how things are.
  • Scene D: It’s Henry’s birthday and all’s right in the world. (And to give a time reference to Henry’s age, birth date, and to more fully put him into his town and culture.)

So I wrote a bunch of scene outlines like this, putting them in a kind of order, but not really saying what would happen in each.

I’d have scenes much like this:

In this scene Henry and Benjamin have their first conflict, which results in a challenge to the next conflict. They need to be nearly equally matched so the outcome is in doubt. Henry will use his power, and Benjamin will use his strength

or

In this scene Henry and Benjamin discover the things they have in common, and they have their first Real Talk about Life and Girls and the Future. They share a love for observation and discovery.

I didn’t really plot out the book or even pick a theme. I just wrote one scene after another, and not in order.

The book now has about 115 or so scenes, but there are about 500 scenes total that I’ve written. Some are just plain old backstory—the story of John Clark and George Valentine and their interaction on the USS Badger, or the story about Alice Valentine and her college education.

Some are scenes that help illustrate the main characters, such as the one between John and Benjamin Clark when Benjamin has the ‘flu, or the one that talks about the churches in Windmill.

Some are scenes that illustrate a point using minor characters.

I struck these out because they were, after all, backstory, or they weren’t germane to the main story, or they had characters with just one role or moment in the book. I tried to give glimpses of the backstory in the main story—I found that I could write scenes and assume the backstory, bringing it in as needed, and I didn’t have to bring everything in—much like in describing a person to another person who’s never seen them you can talk about motives and actions unknown to that listening person because you know the original person, so if there are gaps, there aren’t logical gaps. If you knew my friend Sam’s aversion to cats, you’d understand my story about his avoiding the pet shop, and so on.

I enjoyed writing the scenes that didn’t make it in, because they filled out the characters. There are a half-dozen frank scenes about sex and love and the mysteries of the opposite sex, where Henry and Benjamin speculate privately and discuss openly what they think. I didn’t include them because, to be honest, I thought they would become the focus of the book, and I didn’t want that. (They’re in my archives.) I wanted to keep the focus on two kids in their early teens, and not make it something to snigger at.

The scene between John Clark and his son who’s sick with the ‘flu helped to illustrate the frustration a man feels when his own, favored son is sick with something that can’t be cured by love, but I didn’t think it fit into the story arc, so it’s gone.

As the book went through iterations and beta readers, I would incorporate feedback by deleting or revising scenes, or writing new ones, so that the original story arc stays in place, and the reader is simply carried along from one point to the next without effort. I tried to make the book move through increasingly more emotionally powerful crises so that there is the sense of release and anticipation for the next one.

I’m pretty happy with the result. I feel the book really develops the main characters of Henry and Benjamin well, shows them as real people who have an honest affection for each other and expect to grow up together, and that helps to explain the depth of loss a person can have when someone they depend upon leaves.

In the next essay I’ll talk about themes, and then talk about my resources for understanding the time and place of the 50s in America.