Samantha is lost in the joys of new motherhood—the softness of her eight-month-old daughter’s skin, the lovely weight of her child in her arms—but in trading her artistic dreams to care for her child, Sam worries she’s lost something of herself. And she is still mourning another loss: her mother, Iris, died just one year ago.
When a box of Iris’s belongings arrives on Sam’s doorstep, she discovers links to pieces of her family history but is puzzled by much of the information the box contains. She learns that her grandmother Violet left New York City as an eleven-year-old girl, traveling by herself to the Midwest in search of a better life. But what was Violet’s real reason for leaving? And how could she have made that trip alone at such a tender age?
In confronting secrets from her family’s past, Sam comes to terms with deep secrets from her own. Moving back and forth in time between the stories of Sam, Violet, and Iris, Mothers and Daughters is the spellbinding tale of three remarkable women connected across a century by the complex wonder of motherhood.
Sounds like my kind of book. I’m thrilled Rae’s with us today to give us some A-Z wisdom. Enjoy!
An A-Z Guide
In the summer of 1999, I was living in New York City on break from my MFA program, and I had just begun writing a novel. My sister was dating her now-husband Darin Srauss (Half a Life, More Than it Hurts You). On the wall of his apartment was a huge grid of different colored note cards, a methodical diagram of his second novel. I was overwhelmed. It was clear my free-form approach was all wrong. And if I needed to be that organized about where a novel was going, maybe I wasn’t cut out to write one.
Of course I know now that there is no right way to write a novel, but at the time, Darin had already written a successful book so I felt like he knew what he was doing and I didn’t. It took me a while before I could accept that I had to figure out my own process.
Suffice it to say, what works for me might not work for you, and what works for one book might not work for the next. But here, from A to Z, are some things that I like to remember about novel writing.
Action. Get back to it. I don’t mean a fight scene. Action can be two people having tea. Background/backstory quickly gets boring. (It’s literally undramatic.)
Begin. Where to begin a novel? I still use the image of the boulder beginning to roll down the hill. Something has been set in motion.
Copy. Not really, but learn from books you love.
Description. Write less of it.
Every day? Nope. I take long periods of time away from writing. It took me a long time not to feel guilty about this, but I figured out what works for me.
Friends. Have a handful of trusted readers. One or two who are guaranteed to gush (my mom and my sister-in-law), one who is tough (my husband), and a couple others whose responses you respect (a novelist friend and my sister). I don’t like sharing my work, but I know it’s necessary.
Go back to the moment when you thought “yes” about the idea for your novel. Because you’ll definitely reach a point when you think it sucks.
Have an ending in mind. I don’t outline, but I know where/how/when a novel ends. This gives me a destination to work towards.
Iceberg. I still firmly believe in Hemingway’s iceberg principle. 10% of the iceberg is above water. 90% is below the surface. 10% is told, 90% inferred. Trust your reader.
Jealousy is an insidious waste of time. Someone is always going to have bigger advances, better reviews, more talent, more breaks, less wrinkles than you have.
Lists of detail. You don’t need them, especially in describing what characters look like.
Metaphors and similes. Don’t labor over them. It always shows.
No one is going to make you write your book. If you want to do something else, do something else. If you want to write, write.
Openings. Ground us in the story’s present action. Engage us in the trajectory of a story. Make us wonder what will happen.
Phew. This writing thing is hard. I wish I could say it’s gotten easier for me, but it hasn’t. This is the gig. I have no idea how to write a novel.
Quit comparing yourself to other writers. (Try to, at least.) Comparisons are odious.
Research. Write what you don’t know. Research is fun and fascinating. It almost feels like cheating.
Specific. Always. It’s the only way to get to the universal.
Take a walk or a shower if you’re stuck. It helps.
Unclench your shoulders at the keyboard.
Value your non-writing life. Enjoy it. Try not to think, “I should be writing.”
Want. What does your main character want? I hate this question, even though I know it’s a basic storytelling principle. When I can’t answer it simply, I know I’m in trouble.
X-out those phrases that are too cute, that you like a little too much. As a friend once said, you have to get rid of your little darlings.
You know what you want your novel to be. Don’t be overly swayed by what others think. But if people tell you something’s not working, they’re probably right.
Zzzzs. As in get some. Your mind is always working. Sleep often delivers solutions to writing problems. You also look better when you’re well rested. Bonus!
Thanks for a fun and wise post, Rey!
Photo courtesy Flickr’s curious flux