The desire to write a book tends to hit me before I have any solid ideas about how to get started. I want to write a novel about grief. I want it to touch on spirituality and faith in ways that make sense to me, an atheist who wants to believe (must believe) that our consciousness lives on once we die. I want to write it this year.
This must be a book that incorporates magical realism, but it must also be a tale of self-discovery. The ending will include a reunion in some other realm than ours — a tear jerker, where a grieving mother (*ahem* me) gets a final goodbye with her dead child.
But this is not plot or character or story. It’s just a jumble of thoughts in my head that are going nowhere.
I know this book will be about me, but I’m not sure what that means yet, beyond the fact that grief will be the central spark that runs throughout the narrative just as it runs through my life. Grief must drive the plot and characters and story of this not-book.
The book in my head always starts with the desire to tell a story. That’s also where it always ends. The concept for my not-book hovers half-formed in my mind, its edges unrealized, as I wonder how the hell to bring the shadow of this story to life. I know there’s something there, but I can’t seem to reach it.
How not to create characters
I’m thinking in circles. My protagonist should be a middle-aged woman, like me, who has lost a child. But maybe it should also be a teenager, like my daughter, who has lost a sister. Or it could be someone else entirely — someone peripheral to the story of a dead child — her best friend, one of her teachers, a cousin, an aunt, the doctor who broke the news. Maybe the story should be about all of them.
But no, I need it to be authentic. Stephen King’s main characters are typically white male writers and they’re all believable. Yes, but his secondary characters are stereotypes, tropes, cliches. I loved Stephen King when I was young, but he is not my muse anymore.
Who does characterization well? I need my characters to be as real as possible — who is real? June (Offred) from The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s as real as they come.
How old was Margaret Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale? I look this up (another distraction). She was about 46 and the character of June was 33. Is June just a younger version of Atwood? Is Aunt Lydia Atwood’s worst self? What about Serena Joy who is not the young, beautiful wife of the Commander (as played by Yvonne Strahovski in the Netflix series) but actually an aging, bitter wife who is ignored by her husband. I’m back where I started from.
This is how not to write characters. First, start thinking about the importance of the characters and then talk yourself out of your ability to authentically create them. Maybe I should focus on story.
How not to imagine story
I have put the idea of characters on a shelf for now hoping that, perhaps, the characters will reveal themselves when the story is more fully formed. This is where I really get stuck. How can I create an original story when everything has been written before?
There are writers — really good ones — who have hit on all my main themes — dreams, the afterlife, death, grief, and transformation. What’s left for me to write? Then there’s the problem of demand. Is this the kind of story that agents and editors are buying right now (or, more realistically, two years from now)?
I once spent four years writing a book about doorways to other worlds only to encounter agent after agent with guidelines that specified, “No portal fantasy!” I self-published that book. It didn’t sell well.
Can I go through that again?
I picture the modest list of agents that may be looking for adult magical realism and what their guidelines might say: “No books about grief! No cancer stories! No death or sadness or harsh reality, thank-you-very-much.”
This line of thinking throws a wrench into my brainstorming process. It sends me to my bed where I curl up and let the story float, unformed, cushioned within the safety of my imagination. Nobody can hurt it if I don’t let it out.
But back to story. Neil Gaiman, eleven years my senior, has written all the stories I want to write. He has myth and portals and dreams and the afterlife. He even has doorways as I recently discovered after reading his book Neverwhere (his main character, Door, can open doors from her world into ours). The Graveyard Book, a middle grade fantasy, features a living child raised by spirits, even has a foreward written by Margaret Atwood. But does Gaiman know grief?
“Not like I know grief,” I think, and an image of my daughter’s face shines in my memory for a brief, painful instant.
So maybe my not-book will be unique after all. Maybe six bright red cardinals in a tree mark the beginning of my story. Has anyone done that before?
I read and reread books by authors that inspire me and stories that follow the echo of the path I want mine to take. And this does inspire me, but it also shuts me down because how can I ever write a masterpiece like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Graveyard Book. What’s left to say about death and pain and sorrow?
What’s left to say about redemption and perseverance?
“Plenty,” I think. I have so much to say about the landscape of grief — and perhaps this is the setting for my story — a fictional place of desolation, of tangled labyrinths without maps, of lost souls who walk an invisible line between the living and the dead.
“Who wants to read that depressing crap?” I think and I’m back in bed, nursing the seeds of the story in my brain where it is safe and loved and unwritten.
How to not write a novel
There are a million ways to sabotage the fragile new growth of a budding story.
It’s already been written before (by somebody better than me.)
I’ve tried and failed multiple times.
No one will read it anyway.
It’s too hard.
The best way to not write a novel is to keep it in a nebulous state, to fail to commit to an actual plot, to sabotage your characters and story before they become more than ghosts in your own imagination.
But planning the book is something, right? Thinking about writing feels good. It feels productive. It feels like a call to action. Thinking about writing doesn’t get the book written.
Thinking and thinking and overthinking my not-book is just another way to not write the book. I should know. I’m kind of an expert at that. Here is the place where I draw the line, make a commitment, and lay out the bones of this story in a neat little outline which I will revise and rework and revisit a dozen times.
Yes, I can write the book. I’ll do that soon (very soon!) But first I need to do a bit more research, read a dozen books about grief, and mull the plot points over in my head for a few more weeks or months or years. I’ll be in bed if you need me.