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Two Pages Tell a Story

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By Hana Carpenter (Flickr CC)

Today’s guest is Yona Zeldis McDonough [2], the award-winning author of six novels, most recently You Were Meant for Me. She is also the author of twenty-three books for children and she’s the editor of two essay collections. Of today’s post, Yona says: “I have written six novels and I want to share some of what I have learned along the way.  Writing a novel is a like being a long distance runner—you have to have endurance. I believe what I have to say on the topic will be useful to other writers.”

[pullquote]”With a deft, sure touch, Yona Zeldis McDonough explores the ways families are formed and how love can take you by surprise. An absorbing and soul-stirring novel.” — Christina Baker Kline, #1 NYT bestselling author of Orphan Train[/pullquote]

Yona lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband, two children (18 and 23), and “two small, yappy Pomeranians.” You can find her on Facebook [3] and on her website [2] where she loves to connect with readers.

Two Pages Tell a Story

I started my writing career by writing short fiction, and the short story remains a form I still love to read and write. Writing a piece of short fiction offers its own particular kind of joy to its author: a story is like a baby you hold in your arms. You can see every little bit of it at the same time; you can keep it close to your heart. It communicates with you simply and directly. It is, in a word, a seamless whole.

But a novel is a whole different animal. If a short story is a babe in arms, a novel is like a grapefruit balanced on the back of an ant. The load is enormous and progress is predictably slow. A novel is big, unwieldy and sprawling; you can’t hold in your arms; in fact, you can’t hold it at all. Instead you have to shape it, direct it, beat it into submission. And unlike a story, you can’t sit down and power your way through it. No, a novel requires the endurance, stamina and patience of the long distance runner. Only the most devoted and patient practitioners will succeed and thrive.

Yet I had a novel I wanted—and needed—to write; how was I going to overcome the obstacles inherent in the nature of the form itself and get it done? I wasn’t looking for a magic bullet—I knew that nothing could replace the hard work and sustained concentration that novel writing required. I was just looking for a little boost along the way, something to help get me through the forest and out into the clearing.

I thrashed around for a while and stumbled on to the answer almost by chance. It was way back when I was writing my first novel, The Four Temperaments. I was the mother of two young children then, and I despaired of ever having the unbroken stretches of time that would allow me to focus on the monumental task at hand. It seemed like this moment might not come until the youngest—four years old at the time—was off to college. Fourteen years was a long time to wait.

yonabookcover [4]But both kids were in school—my daughter in pre-K and my son in third grade—so I did have some time during the day to write. Sure I had to clean, cook, tend house and work on freelance projects that had a guaranteed paycheck at their conclusion. Yet somewhere in that mix, I decided I could write two pages of fiction a day, five days a week. Two pages weren’t so many; two pages were a bite-sized, easily doable number. And even someone with my limited mathematical skills could deduce that two pages a day, Monday through Friday, would yield ten pages a week, and eventually forty pages a month. It would be slow going. But it would be going. And it beat waiting until that kid hit eighteen.

So I did it. Some days I was even able to write more than my quota—three or four pages. On a really good day, five. But as long as I adhered to my self-imposed rule-of-two, I was content. The pages accrued, as did my confidence. Within a year, I had a viable draft and that draft eventually became a bone fide novel—my very first.

From that experience I was able to extrapolate other similar “tricks.” When I sat down to work, I did not think so much about writing the whole novel, or even a chapter. I broke down the task into smaller and smaller bits. I’m writing a scene today, I told myself. A conversation. A description. Discrete, concrete components, these were building blocks of a novel—without ever using the trepidation-inducing N-word.

And a dozen years and five novels later, I can report that it’s worked. The task never gets any easier, the novel, that hissing, spitting and eternally unruly beast, resists attempts to be tamed. But it can sidestepped, eluded and deftly tricked into being. Two pages a day may not seem like a lot. In the end, though, those pages can tell the whole story

How do you find time to write when there’s no time to find? We’d love to hear your tricks for taming the “hissing, spitting and eternally unruly beast.”