The Five Basics of Novel Writing

Basic #1 You need something gnawing at you, some sort of singular understanding of the key to existence or just a character in panda jammies.

The first book which I wrote was inspired by the image of a group of prostitutes being driven across the country in a tractor trailer. Don’t ask why, but that was the idea that came into my head late at night in a Parisian apartment. It developed into my first novel The Sacred Whore.

My second book was based on the impossible idea of a landowner refusing to mine a rich deposit of gold to keep his land pristine, which evolved into Manitou Island.

My latest work, a speculative trilogy about a generational journey to another planet, was borne out of an image of a serval by a watering hole.

Photo credit: Micheal Nichols, National Geographic

This image was the impetus for four books and some fifteen years of writing.

One thing to be careful of in your inspiration mode is the issue of the moment. Avoid delving into a topic that has recently impacted you. In other words, you need at least a couple more years before writing your Covid-19 piece.

Basic #2 Manage your work as it comes out of you, bit by bit. You need to write what needs to be written, which could be anything from a full outline to a character description or snippets of dialogue. Whatever it is, build out from there.

The key to this step is patience. You have to wait for the moment and/or characters to reveal themselves. I came to understand this when writing The Sacred Whore, I was stuck in the middle of the book and realized I had way too many characters (something like 20) and decided to eliminate half of them. The funny thing was that one of the characters I tried to eliminate – Chantal Deschampes – immediately wanted back in the story. It wasn’t my idea. It was hers. That’s when I knew I had something.

Basic #3 When you’re stuck, go back to the beginning and go through it again. Get the momentum you need to continue and just plow ahead. You have to face the simple fact that a lot of what you have already written is junk and will eventually be deleted.

It’s like being stuck in the snow or mud in your car. You’ve got to go back, dig out the rear wheels, clean the path, and get a little space to move ahead. You have to do this again and again, so much so that your first page gets rewritten a hundred times, which can be a good thing. Or not. But don’t worry about that now.

Basic #4 Leave the work alone for a long period of time, at least half a year. If not more. Let it ruminate. Your eyes need to be new. Let go of everything you held tight and see if it still works without you wishing it along.

This is probably the area that I personally need to work on the most. I can be impatient and move ahead when I should be waiting. I have only recently learned to enlist the work of a professional editor. Hopefully that helps me turn the corner at long last.

Basic #5 It’s time to share, to submit to agents, to attend conferences and workshops, to do that over and over again. You need a tanker load of luck with this. I’ve had the equivalent of a toy tugboat. I’ve tried for many years now and have even had a few decent conversations and follow-up emails. But then it ends.

Leaving me with the pictures of sunsets and goody bags of pens and paper. And so I take the hint and start all over again.

Richard Blanco: A Poet Who Knows It

Richard Blanco is not only a celebrated poet and a genuine soul, unafraid of the perilous depths of self, but he also really knows his stuff. IMAG3725I was privileged to be part of the Sanibel Writer’s Conference this weekend and listen to his thoughts in workshops and readings. IMAG3719No single line of poetry is ever arbitrary. Every line of poetry is like a truss in a bridge. It has to hold its own weight. It’s picking up from one side to the next. Each must be able to transfer the load to the next. It’s not that different from prose, understanding the basics of language. IMAG3714All poems should be read aloud. You’ll be surprised what your body tells you about it. Poetry cannot escape that aspect. We need to remember poetry was once a means of gathering, around the camp fire. It was music, the troubadours. That’s its roots. IMAG3717He even explained iambic pentameter with ease.

It’s not just the syllables and iambs. It’s important because it matches one breath. It is a unit of thought, a yardstick for ideas. Anything shorter seems abrupt. Anything longer seems long-winded, more of narrative rhetoric. Iambic pentameter is a good fundamental tool to focus and modulate the lines, something that can now be played with in free verse.IMAG3726

I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was

And pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.

(*From Looking for the Gulf Motel.)

Sanibel Writing Conference Exercises Three

My last day at the Sanibel Writing Conference yielded more writing time to work on exercises offered by John DufresneBrock Clarke, Darin Strauss & Benjamin Percy

1. Reflect on a photograph:IMAG3736The camera was given to me at Christmas. I took a picture of my brother in front of the garage. It wasn’t centered, not even close. He stared back, bored, his mittened hands awkwardly together, waiting for me. It was a nothing moment, taken badly, now something with little to say. I wonder where the other pictures are. Why only that one? There must have been another dozen or so. At least. Were they also of my brother and the garage? The garden? What about the dog? Where are my parents?

2. Write about a place and time – an indelible moment – with extraordinary and ordinary aspects.

Richard was shirtless, his sweaty chest barreling over his grey black shorts. His girlfriend was behind him in the corner, completely naked, just her high heels and a glass of wine in her hand. o-KESHA-NUDE-570“She’s a nudist,” Jerome said. “Can you believe it?”

“It’s freezing outside.”

“I know.” His face was glowing, stretched like elastic. “It’s the kind of thing that only happens on MTV.”

3. Write a piece that starts with “The last time I saw  _____ was  _____.”

The last time I saw my cousin was on the park bench at Emerald Lake. He was red-faced, laughing, a bottle of Kokanee in his hand. “They’re everywhere! Holy shit!”

They raced back and forth, dotting the burrowed ground, chasing each other to get nuts from the people, darting back, vanishing like they were never there.Alberta 728“It’s a Golden-mantle Ground Squirrel.” I had my glossy guide, The Field Guide for the Flora and Fauna of Western Canada, clutched in my hand.

“The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel!” He spilled beer in a foamy glob at the one nearest. “There you go, tiger. You’ll like that.”

4. Choose the thing that you are most afraid of and write about that.

I can’t move my head. Not even my shoulders. I am pinned, dead still, between the boards, a bright side light on my face and neck. I am in a flat horrible space, my eyes wide, stuck inside this coffin in the ground. 109844-dog-buried-alive-found-by-animal-welfare-officers-in-a-field-near-birzStuck there, panicking. I can’t even raise my hands properly. I have no control. I am completely helpless, trapped by monsters, people I don’t know, who have left me here to die, to be tortured in my final hours and think nothing of it. I close my hands to make it go away, but it is still there. I can’t get out. I want to scream but I can’t even do that. I am stuck in the horrible silent box with not even myself.

Sanibel Writing Conference Exercises Two

Another early start to the day at the Sanibel Writing Conferencemore time for writing exercises with John Dufresne.IMAG3705Writing Exercise 1: List of Frail Things (Derived from The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon

Old people, children, stained glass window, eyes, bones, atmosphere, ice, wings, egos, sleep, understanding, eggs, music.

IMAG3708Writing Exercise 2: Start a piece with “It was a dark and stormy night”:

It was a dark and stormy night, just the beginning. I was glad for it. We wouldn’t have to leave. We wouldn’t have to do anything but watch the windows buffet, the rain tear sideways at the tops of the trees and police car driving slowly around.

“What time is it?”  Valerie looked tiny in the door.

“What does it matter?”

IMAG3689Writing Exercise 3. “Everything is broken”

“Everything is broken.”

She stepped onto the cement ledge and pulled out her Sponge Bob alarm clock. “Not everything.”

“Ruined.” I stared out, the trees hanging low over the lone sloped-down wall, the window twisted down, looking at the ground.

She grabbed onto a board and climbed onto the pile.

It came over in a nauseous wave, suddenly up from her stomach and lungs. I was going to throw up. “Get down from there!” 

IMAG3702Writing Exercise 4. Getting a terrible diagnosis:

She waited on the line. Steely Dan. That’s who it was; she had never liked that song.



“It’s what we were afraid of.”

She pressed her finger against the table, watched it go white and flat. She wondered how far back she could get it. The bone wouldn’t break. “Is there a treatment?”

“Bring him in the morning.”

“Thank you.” She didn’t remember hanging up or sitting, but she had his head in her lap and stroked his neck and shoulder. She hated how vulnerable he made himself. She squeezed him harder than she wanted. He looked up at that.


Sanibel Writing Conference Exercises

The Writing Conference on Sanibel Island, Florida is underway.IMAG3657I have begun the day with some writing exercises, led by John Dufresne:

1. Write what you are feeling right now:

Still the pain in my back, the lower blade, dull, deep. Don’t want to move my arm the wrong way. It’s an odd big room with glass doors bringing clanging light in.IMAG3673

2. Expectations for the conference:

Above all, get someone interested in “my bad side”, any thoughts, any moment that will lead to that. Meeting people seems to be the key, getting anyone to know who I am so that the next email isn’t trashed without a decent look. I am always very happy to be given the time, space and freedom to write in any way, for “Anori”, anything else, and revising “bad side”IMAG3669

3. Reflections on childhood, remembering/imagining a moment before going to school, even your first memory:

The water was far away, everything was, through the fence, looking below, imagining what it would be like to be on that floating log, or was that even remembered? The monorail turning high in the sky, metal and glass and movies on the curving wall, the sun coming in the outlet.IMAG3670

4. Who was your first friend?

Ronald was a bear with a big face, flatter than he should have been, little chubby arms and a long hanging belly, tiny legs. I stuffed my things in his back. Charlie was there too, a sad little monkey puppet with a hard bobbling head and cheap brown cloth for a puppet body. They were always together, Charlie inside Ronald, always there on my bed, beside my pillow and then in my closet. I don’t remember not having them, getting rid of them. I wish I did. I probably forced myself not to remember that, growing up and throwing them away.IMAG3680