Novel/novella: The story behind the story


I know, I know, you haven’t seen the story yet. I have been asked several times lately how I came to write this fictional story, as well as what I’m going to do next. So here goes.


Back in October 2011, I went to a writer’s retreat in southern California, hosted by Marilyn Friedman of The Writing Pad. This was a weekend event in the 29 Palms area up in the hills near Los Angeles. I had been looking for a writer’s conference or retreat to go to, and chose this one partly because Adair Lara (author of Naked, Drunk and Writing) was one of the teachers attending.


We did a number of writing exercises over an intense two days. Many of them were of the free-writing type, where we chose a topic and wrote for, say, 10 minutes. Then we read what we had written and received feedback. (I love this kind of exercise.) One of the things I wrote had to do with myself and my twin sister as children. At the end of the weekend, Marilyn suggested that I write a longer piece about my sister and I, but with us as adults this time.


I thought about this all the way home. I had never really seriously considered writing fiction, but I was inspired with the idea to the point where I couldn’t focus on much else. More or less on a whim, I decided to participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and try to write my story.



NaNoWriMo basically challenges writers to write 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. I got home from the retreat on October 28, so I had barely 3 days to get myself ready. I came up with a title (“Inseparable”) and a synopsis. I had no idea how to do things like develop characters, and had little time to do it anyway. Many hours were spent over those 3 days just organizing the story; my hope was to keep the thing moving along and have it reach a natural conclusion by the time I reached 50,000 words. I had a large cork board which I had divided with masking tape into 4 horizontal columns representing the major story parts. I then used colored index cards (one color for each story line) and plotted out the story.


Then I started writing. As many of you know, I prefer to write my drafts longhand. I have found that I am actually more productive this way, even though it means spending more time later typing it all up. What worked for me in this case was to look at the board in the morning, decide which scenes I was going to work on that day, and then just sit down and write. I set a timer for 10 minutes and wrote steadily till it went off. Then I reset it and went on like that. It was actually quite easy to write around 2,000 words at a sitting over about 90-120 minutes this way.




There were 4 days in November (Thanksgiving for example) when I did no writing at all, but I still got to 50,000 words by November 28. Then I pretty much set it aside and left it alone; I had thought up no plan at that point for what (if anything) I was going to do with the thing. About 3 weeks later I got a contract for my first non-fiction book, Pure Poultry, and the novel was pushed even further down the priority list.


I’m not really sure what prompted me to pull out this file and revisit the novel just now, but I did. Interestingly, as I read through it, I discovered that much of what I wrote 5 years ago seemed to parallel things going on in my life today. I read through the whole thing in one sitting, then went back and began to revise. One thing near the ending seemed particularly trite to me (“cringe-worthy” as my niece Chaidie put it), so I re-worked that until it made more sense to me.


So now, as I prepare to travel to Pennsylvania for a speaking event later this month, and am assembling the proposal package for my third non-fiction book, I also find myself oddly drawn to this fiction project. An important next step will be getting additional eyes on it and feedback. Like poetry, I never really saw myself as writing fiction. But I’ve had a deal with myself over the past several years; to pay attention to inspiration, and act on it when it arrives. There’s a reason why I dusted off this file when I did, and I intend to see it through, wherever it may lead.



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