How Do You Keep a Novel Alive When It Keeps Trying To Die?
Kate Hope Day on Checking In With Your Work and Persistence
Lately when I get a rare chance to talk with other novelists, we are only interested in asking each other one question. Are you finding time to write? We trade tips about how to squeeze writing time into days packed with day jobs, caregiving, remote school supervising, and endless dishes and laundry. Some writers I know have started working in part or entirely on their phones, while they nurse their babies or watch their kids at the park. Others have begun getting up at 5 am every morning to have an hour to work before their families are up.
Novels (or any other longform project) ask that writers hold multiple, disparate things in our minds at once, not only over days but over weeks, months, and years. Every time we step away from our book there’s the danger we’re going to lose track of one or more of these threads and the project will lose its energy, its will to exist. So when my writer friends and I quiz each other about time, what we’re really trying to get at is a question that’s always been fundamental to writing a novel, but that feels like an absolute imperative to writing one right now: How do you keep a novel alive when it keeps trying to die?
I wrote my second novel In the Quick while my two kids were in school or preschool—in the hours between school drop off and pick up, 8:15 am to 2:40 pm. Six hours a day, five days a week, which now seems like an obscene amount of time, not only to write, but also to do all the other things I do to keep myself engaged and motivated when I’m working on a years long project. Reading books that shake up my habits of thought, looking up key words for the novel in the dictionary, drawing plot charts and character arcs.
When schools closed last Spring I was at the very beginning of a new novel, my third, set on the Oregon coast and centering on a paramedic and mother, and the family secret she unearths. I had a couple of chapters, a rough plot outline, and what felt like a million ideas for scenes. I had been focusing on generating words, aiming to get as many of those ideas down on the page as possible before the energy behind them started to fade. Then all my time to write evaporated. I had to give up on the idea of writing a big, messy first draft quickly, and to go back to the way I used to write when my kids were babies, when I was working on my first novel If, Then (Random House, 2019), in short bursts when they were napping or in little snippets of stolen time while shut up in my bedroom or, more often, in the bathroom.Novels (or any other longform project) ask that writers hold multiple, disparate things in our minds at once, not only over days but over weeks, months, and years.
Back then I followed a “faucet” method of writing. With so little time or solitude, when I got a few minutes to write I couldn’t take time to ponder or brainstorm. I had to start typing the minute the computer screen came to life before my eyes. What I was typing might be good or bad, but I tried to get something on the page every day. But this time around purely generating words felt hollow. Maybe because so much of my day is spent completing a long list of thankless tasks, I had to find ways to make writing feel less like work and more like what it is—the only time of my day when I have the freedom to create something entirely for myself. Now my writing philosophy is not so much “touch the work every day” but something more like, “check the work’s pulse every day.” That is, find a way to tap back into its world, its characters, the questions it’s asking.
This doesn’t always look like writing. A lot of the time I’ve been coming at my project sideways, so to speak, through different modes and mediums. I’ve created Pinterest boards of images that help me enter my novel’s world. I’ve listened to music that has a feeling I’m trying to capture in a scene. I’ve watched movies from the era my book is set in, or that help me understand my characters’ jobs or the place they live in.
I also write a lot more in longhand than I used to. When I have a short amount of time but I’m in a resistant mood, I set a timer and tell myself to write anything that has to do with my book. Sometimes I spend those ten or fifteen minutes making lists: title ideas, key words for the project, striking images from the book, opinions my characters hold. Or other times I do a freewrite that begins with a key word for the novel, a painting or a photograph that captures some aspect of the book, or an object that means something to my main character. The point isn’t to generate anything that’s going to actually make it into the novel itself, although sometimes that does happen, but to keep myself connected to the project on days I can’t write.
Visual reminders have always been a big part of my process, and I’ve been leaning on them hard lately. I paste images that evoke my novel’s world to my bathroom mirror or make them my phone’s screensaver, I stick notes with my characters’ names on my bedside table or on the dash of my car, and I print pages. Lots of pages. I know a lot of people don’t like to print until they’ve completed a full draft of a scene or a chapter, or even the whole book, but for me that’s the fastest way to let a novel project die. If I manage to find an hour to write, I try to print what I’ve done—a new scene, a revised chapter, even a weird, messy freewrite if that’s all I’ve got. (I wasn’t always this way, but I’ve gotten comfortable with looking at a mess on the page.
Sometimes that mess has magic in it; the opening paragraph of In the Quick was a weird 15 minute freewrite I did one day, and it ended up in the book almost word for word.) Then I carry these pages around with me. There are days I have time to read them in between things or before I go to bed. But even if I don’t end up marking up the pages, or even reading them, having a physical representation of the project in my line of vision for the day keeps it in my thoughts.
There’s something else I do to take the pulse of my book: I pay attention to how I feel about it when I open up my notebook or my laptop, and I take a minute to reflect on those emotions. Sometimes I even set a timer and tell myself I’m not going write the book. I’m going to write about it. How do I feel about it right now? What parts feel “hot,” what parts feel “cold”? What sections do I want to write and what sections am I avoiding? What paragraphs do I skim over when I’m reading them? Do I feel close to the beating heart of the novel, its central question or preoccupation, or do I feel far away from it?
Under normal circumstances there are so many ways for a novel to die. Among my closest writer friends there are at least ten books between us whose lives were cut short. Sometimes the author got a better idea and left the pages to molder in a drawer, or the story got stuck in the middle and never got unstuck, or the book resisted all attempts to create a plot. But more often than not the novels died because their main characters didn’t want anything badly enough. They didn’t have a need that was like an engine, that generated heat and movement—that created enough energy to resuscitate the novel if it started to expire.
If there was ever a time to write a main character with agency, who wants things and keeps trying to get those things no matter what, this is it. That’s the kind of character who will keep your novel alive even when you haven’t opened your laptop in weeks. That’s how I feel about the main character of my third novel. She’s alive. She still has more to say, more to do. She’s not done yet and I feel that energy when I finally have a minute to come back to my laptop and open up my novel file.
In the Quick by Kate Hope Day is available now via Random House.