Turning a Giant into Many Dwarves: A Novel-Writing Approach

by Clay Carter

When I tell people that this semester I am in a fiction class focused on creating a 50,000 word manuscript they are astounded and fearful. Many times I’m hit with their doubt, that they could never do this, that it is too much work, or that their ideas will not be able to cover enough space to fulfill the required word count. I understand that students are often frightened of large assignments, and that such a task can deflate confidence and reduce their drive to succeed.
My head was filled with these same thoughts in the summer months before entering this course. How will I ever complete my words? Will I be able to keep up? Can I imagine all the characters and plots and settings needed to communicate clearly the world of the story? In all honesty, I began to doubt myself and the story I wanted to write. Luckily I encountered a quote that allowed me to look at this project as composed of dozen of parts rather than thinking of the whole all at once, T.S. Eliot says:
“When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to
its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.”
The framework that Eliot mentions is crucial to tackling any large work of writing, whether it is an epic poem, a memoir or a piece of investigative journalism. His words also assuaged my worries. From here I felt more confident in my ability to create this world that I had begun to imagine by dividing my novel in smaller, more manageable sections. In the remainder of this blog I will outline the process that I feel has been effective in keeping my thoughts fresh and my fingers flying.
Developing a storyboard and a list of characters was the first step I took during the pre-writing phase. This is mainly an organization tool. It is daunting to remember characters and their plotlines. The storyboard is especially helpful to me because it allows my plots to become visual all at once. I used note cards to color code each character. When I lay them all out I can trace how any particular character moves through the course of the story. In times when I see that a character is not well rounded, meaning the character is static, I lay my cards out and find areas in the plot that would be conducive to the expansion of that character’s traits, flaws and desires.
When it comes time to writing I stay on a straight and narrow path with a planned destination because I have my cards in front of me. Before I write I know what scene I plan to write, which characters are going to be interacting and the conflict they confront. Knowing these three things allows for my mind to fill in the details of only this scene rather than thinking about how it might influence the rest of the novel. To reiterate, the storyboard provides a framework in which I can write and explore the minds of my characters. Structure will work wonders!
In conclusion I want to leave you the reader with another quotation I found to be most inspirational. It gave me the drive to push my creativity to its utmost and never shoot down ideas before I give them a shot. This bit comes from the film director Jim Jarmusch:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
[Editor’s Note: To hear about experimentation in the framework of a novel, check out today’s other blog post by Rachel Rump. – Lauren Burch]
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One Comment on “Turning a Giant into Many Dwarves: A Novel-Writing Approach”

  1. Lauren Burch says:

    I remember when I took 407 and first realized we'd be writing a novel in a semester. I definitely felt the fear and doubt that you mention in your post.However, I also like how you break down that nervousness with the framework of the novel. I've heard it said before that writing a book is like building a house, but the way you've laid it out here makes the analogy so much simpler to visualize. Too often we get caught up in trying to make sure that the house we're building has curb appeal, while we forget to support it from the inside.


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