Saturday, July 28, 2012

On Decoding That Coming of Age Novel I Want to Write, and How My Dad Is Going to Help

I had a completely different blog planned for this morning, but realized I was able to sum it up entirely in a Facebook post, so I went with this:
Was going to blog about this, but been busy, so here it is: have no idea where my "career" is headed. But lately, I've just been unbelievably thankful that I'm able to get every morning like this and write - write EVERY DAY. Sure, I still have my hopes and dreams, and then more realistic goals. I've absorbed all kinds of "writing advice" - about the craft and career choices - from dozens of writers. But at this point, I'm just happy to "be here", toiling away every day. Because that's what makes a person a "writer". And I'm down with that.
Really, what more is there to say? The most important part of a writing career is the writing, and I all need for that is pen, paper, a little time every day, somewhere quiet (preferably my office,  filled with my cool "Bradbury Shelf" and all the books I love, which has become my sanctuary as of late), and I don't need anything else.  Because that's writing. That's the stuff I can control, every single day.

But, I was able to express that in a Facebook post, so I'll move on this morning to what I've been turning over in my head a lot lately, above all the current writing projects: my magnum opus, my epic coming-of-age novel, based on my life and friends dear to me.

The one that's failed, miserably, over and over.

Probably my favorite kind of novel is the "coming-of-age" novel.  IT, of course, by Stephen King, is one of my all time favorites. Boy's Life and Mystery Walk by Robert McCammon and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee are also beloved, as is The Talisman by King and Straub, Phantoms, by Thomas Tessier, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and too many others to name. Believe it or not, A Christmas Story - the movie - is a staple in this house.

And I've tried to write that novel, so many times before.  It was the first post-science fiction novel I ever tried to write, almost seven years ago.  And I spent five or six years rewriting the first half of that novel, until I gave up, decided I had to start smaller. 

I experienced some successes. Small ones, to be sure, but enough to convince me it was time to try again.

And, it failed once more.   Died at around six hundred pages.  But luckily, Billy the Kid started talking in my ear around that time, I outlined it, and now I'm almost done with that. And in the meantime, I've written a novella, and am halfway through another.

But I've been turning that unfinished novel over in my head this entire time. Because I really WANT to write that novel.  So in the meantime, while writing other things, I've re-read novels similar to the one I want to write, studying them. Breaking them down.  

Now, here's  the thing:

I've heard from several different folks who feel that, as a writer, you CAN'T analyze works of literature, break them down, study them, see what makes them tick, to make you a better writer. That somehow this ruins the magic, and ruins your creativity.

Every writer is different, and different things work for them. But as an English teacher of 10 years, having studied English and Creative Writing at the undergraduate and graduate level, I disagree.

Sort of.

See, I sort of agree.  And, I've fallen prey to studying other writers too much. When I first started writing, I wrote a lot like Stephen King (or so friends said. They were probably just being nice). But, that made sense: I read NOTHING but Stephen King, then.  

Then came a Dean Koontz phase. A Lovecraft phase. A Bradbury phase. Hopefully, I've worked myself out of that, because I try to keep my reading very diverse these days. Although, I have caught myself trying to imitate Charles Grant, lately.

But when it comes to a specific TYPE of novel, or a novel that you're stuck on, I believe study of like works CAN help.  See, this big, epic, sprawling "coming-of-age" novel is something I DESPERATELY want to write.  So this entire time, while I've been writing other stuff, I've been studying other works, mulling over this unfinished manuscript while driving, running errands, walking, mowing.

And the first thing I realized was terribly simple: I was having such a problem because I was trying to mix two things: a coming-of-age novel with a fast-paced, F. Paul Wilson/Dean Koontz-esque supernatural thriller. So, my first realization: I had two novels competing for the same space, and they needed to be separated. 

And, spring-boarding off that idea, I thought about what makes coming-of-age stories so powerful: REAL LIFE STUFF.  Which is important for all works of fiction,  but it seems like coming-of-novel stories hinge on real life stuff almost as much as the main plot.

So, I picked my favorite coming-of-age stories: Boy's Life, To Kill A Mockingbird, It, Dandelion Wine and - believe it or not - A Christmas Story. And what I've realized - through studying them -  is that they're all composed of small little stories about real life, stuff not necessarily connected to the plot itself. Certainly supportive of character development...but they serve as stories unto themselves, also.



Now I still have a lot of work to do.  But as soon as  that revelation hit me - like a thunderbolt - I grabbed a pen and started scribbling down all the stories I remembered of my childhood that would serve as springboards for a plot. And, WOW.

There were a lot of them. So I made a list.  And realized that all I  needed was a central, connecting narrative... and there it was.  Also, my Dad and I have been talking about a project that's left me giddy with its story-telling potential. 

Dad wants to chronicle his childhood and memories of family, friends, and the fifties, and he'd like me to write something about them. Sort of chronicle a memoir. He's going to record himself talking about his memories of that time, and turn them over to me.  I agreed, on the condition I could draw on them for my fiction. He agreed. As you can imagine, this is probably one of the greatest resources I could ever hope to draw upon.

So, someday. Soon.  Maybe even after Billy is completed, if the story "calls to me" strongly enough. I mean, hey - it took Stephen King over 10 years to write and complete It. 

Figure I've got a few more years.....