Writing involves a lot of waiting. If you’re a fiction writer, you know exactly what I mean. First we wait for the spark of an idea, that miraculous vibration felt in our core when a song or an image or a turn of phrase tells us this is the one. This is the kernel of truth upon which we can build more truths and a fully inhabited world. Yes, this could be a novel. We snatch up the nearest pen and paper to jot ideas before they dissipate. To miss recording them would mean more waiting.
We wait for characters to inhabit the premise we imagine. As in forming real-life friendships, we invest time in getting acquainted. One cannot walk up to a person on the street and say, “Let’s be friends starting right now.” Imagine the reaction.
Without knowing who they are and what they’re all about, how can a writer begin plotting a novel? To quote Henry James, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” I’ll now contradict myself by saying it’s through plunging ahead with writing that characters reveal more of themselves to their creator.
Sometimes it’s hard to wait, so we tell characters who they must be in order to serve the story we want them to tell. After all who is working for who?
While writing some portions of my current novel in progress, I set a red velvet chair directly facing mine. The character spoke her story to me. Later when I wrote the antagonists’ chapters, he demanded a stiffer chair set at a 45 degree angle. Not a fan of women, he refused to face me directly. (Sometimes, I do work for them.)
As we wait for these details of character to trickle in, we think of story and plot. What events impact the characters? We know how they’ll operate in this world, how they’ll vex each other and the conflicts that will cause them to act and react. And as they bump around and interfere with each other and decide how to best handle things, we better understand these characters we created and how they’ll push the story to places we hadn’t yet imagined. We can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
Waiting sounds passive, but it’s an active verb for writers. Waiting is not done lying down. Waiting is hours of research, casting nets in to the world and trusting that we’ll haul in a good catch. We attune ourselves to synchronicity, the universe’s guiding hand or what ever you choose to call it.
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May 5, 2022 at 8:11 pm
Hi Gwen, I wish you started your essay with ‘if you’re a *fiction* writer’ of ‘if you’re a *novelist*.’ I’m a lifelong runner. About 10 years ago I got swept up in trail running. I sought out trail running magazines (remember magazines?) and online communities. I quickly learned that when people define themselves as trail runners they really mean trail-ultra-runners (30 or more miles at a shot). I gave it a try and it wasn’t for me.
I feel the same way with the term ‘writer.’ I like to think I’m a writer, but in my online communities, at the writers’ group I used to go to, etc, the ‘writers’ write fiction, they write novels. I don’t really fit in. I don’t create characters and scenes and plots, I work to clearly draw out what’s already there. How does a creative nonfictionist define his craft? Writer seems more geared towards the short story/novel crowd. BTW – this isn’t a rant directed at you because of what you wrote. I think (hope) you might have some answers.
May 6, 2022 at 3:31 pm
Hello Jeff! I’d like thank you for pointing this out. This sharing of ideas is always welcome. Any one who writes is a writer, regardless of whether they write ficiton or nonfiction, in long or short form. My head is in novel writing much of the time, so I used the word “writer” on autopilot. I will in fact revise the openning of the piece to specify fiction writers.
When you are writing nonfiction, do you ever find yourself needing to wait for a piece of the puzzle to drop into place before can proceed with the writing?
I’ve found this in writing creative nonfiction. It takes me time to see how to arrange the paragraphs for flow for example. Or to see the gaps where more info is required.
I have read a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. On a podcast, I heard him say that he uses fiction techniques in his nonfiction writing to give the reader a sense of the people he writes about.
Creative nonfiction involves applying fiction writing strategies to nonfiction writing. If you’d enjoy more reading on this subject, you could try https://creativenonfiction.org/lee-gutkind/. Lee Gutkind is the king of creative nonfiction. Also, he’s been interviewed by several podcasts, many of which appear on Spotify.
May 6, 2022 at 10:41 pm
I’m both sorry and happy to say that my medium has become the blog post. Everything I write is between 700 – 1200 words. Because things are so short, (not looking for big transitions or really even big topics) I don’t find myself waiting too much. Although there are times when I want to write but I can’t think of anything to write about. That happened earlier today and your comment spurred me to write a conversation between myself and my younger self. I thought a bit about character development as I wrote and then edited, trying to find how the two voices differ, but they really don’t. I’ll spend more time with that tomorrow. I checked out that website. I saw a lot of courses there I’d like to take. I’m holding off on that sort of thing until both my kids are away at school (year after next). Thank you for taking my comment seriously.
May 5, 2022 at 11:51 pm
Then we put the manuscript away and wait till we can return with an unbiased eye. Then we polish it up and send it off to publishers or agents and wait again. The waiting never ends. Good thing we can write while we do so 😛
May 6, 2022 at 3:35 pm
This is all so true! My goodness, we have to have nerves of steel and even greater patience. I’ve read that some authors put their workin a drawer for six months before editing so they can be impartial. Time does help.