Practicing the Craft of Fiction

I recently did an interview that touched on the elements of fiction from a craft perspective for The Dark Phantom Review. What follows are excerpts from that interview, a nitty-gritty give-and-take I hope you’ll find useful.

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT PLOTTING YOUR NOVELLA, NINTH-MONTH MIDNIGHT? OR DID YOU DISCOVER IT AS YOU WORKED ON THE BOOK?

For me writing is a long process of trial and error. The first draft of Ninth-Month Midnight was a straightforward chronological narrative that began with the discovery of cancer in the protagonist’s child and chronicled its devastating effects over a year.

Many drafts later, I decided Ninth-Month Midnight would be the story of the mother’s arc from suicidal depression to acceptance with a twist of fate. I needed a hook to get the plot rolling, so I used the protagonist’s explosive refusal to leave the gravesite of her four-year-old daughter.

My ultimate goal was to structure the book to keep the reader entertained. For help, I turned to a library of craft books that I’ve accumulated, including Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. From Brooks I learned to introduce change—a new situation, a new development, new information—at specific and critical junctures, and to use these plot points to develop the character arc.

To keep all the pieces together, I used Scrivener, a word processing program that makes it easy to organize notes and chapters. Scrivener integrates into a single project all aspects of the writing process from research to final draft.

TELL US SOMETHING INTERESTING ABOUT YOUR PROTAGONIST AND HOW YOU DEVELOPED HER. DID YOU DO ANY CHARACTER INTERVIEWS OR SKETCHES PRIOR TO THE ACTUAL WRITING?

I suspect the seed of Dolores Walsh, my protagonist, was planted by a reading of McEwan’s The Child in Time and McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The mother in McEwan’s novel is benumbed by the kidnapping of her child and unable to access emotion. In McShane’s work, the protagonist wants to convince people of her ESP and kidnaps a child whom she pretends to help the police locate through her séances.

The ideas must have been swirling around in my creative unconscious. Without a vivid memory of specifics, I suspect what lingered was the sense of the powerful emotions generated by the loss of a child. After I conceived my character—a mother who is driven to extremity by the death of her four-year-old and seeks her out in the afterlife—I re-read the novels and set to work focusing on the impact of the loss on Dolores.

Let’s see if I can recall my process: I jotted down notes to myself. I did a character interview, parts of which I integrated into Dolores’s sessions with her psychiatrist. I thought about my protagonist a lot, imagining a Natalie Wood look-alike and keeping a photo of Natalie Wood in my word processing program to keep the character’s image vivid in my mind. I made her a chain smoker, I think because I once used cigarettes to cope with stress, and stress was threatening Dolores’s hold on reality. And so it went.

IN THE SAME LIGHT, HOW DID YOU CREATE YOUR ANTAGONIST OR VILLAIN? WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE TO MAKE HIM REALISTIC?

In Nine-Month-Midnight, McShane’s psychic re-emerged as Salvador Esperanza. I used Sal to reveal the character of the protagonist, advance plot through an extra-marital love interest, and beset Dolores with internal and external conflict. Dolores is drawn to the psychic both spiritually and physically, much to the dismay of her husband.

I shaped the character of Esperanza to produce ambivalence in the reader, who must determine if he’s mostly antagonist creating conflict or villain creating havoc. In either case, like real people, he’s not entirely good or bad. I further individualized the character by giving Esperanza arresting bi-colored eyes to reflect the ambiguity of his character and a machismo softened by tenderness toward the grief-stricken men and women who attend his séances.

His backstory, I think, is also realistic. The son of Hispanic farmworkers, he starts a small landscaping business tending to the million-dollar estates on Long Island. An affair with the owner’s daughter leads to his ruin.

SETTING IS ALSO QUITE IMPORTANT AND IN MANY CASES BECOMES LIKE A CHARACTER ITSELF. WHAT TOOLS OF THE TRADE DID YOU USE TO BRING THE SETTING TO LIFE?

The attention to setting was primarily focused on the séances, which I charged with sensory details and with the reactions of participants to multiple stimuli. Some writers, I find, depend on visual and aural images, neglecting smell, taste, and texture, yet all the senses are important to capturing the essence of a place, time or event.

In the case of the séances, I paid attention to the spectral nature of the conjured dead, the foul odors of fiendish spirits, the contrasting voices of the psychic and the spirits he conjured, the aura of candlelight, the rushing wind of released spirits, the brush of a passing soul. Participants were at different times ecstatic, horrified, saddened, credulous, and skeptical.

Dream settings and reveries are suffused with Dolores’s memories of her child, with the soft touch and sweet scent of baby flesh, the horror of blackened eyes, and the cries of pain.

DID YOU KNOW THE THEME OF YOUR NOVELLA FROM THE START, OR IS THIS SOMETHING YOU DISCOVERED AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST DRAFT? IS THIS THEME RECURRENT IN YOUR WORK?

It does seem I’m drawn to end-of-life issues; they appear in my short stories as well. With regard to Ninth-Month Midnight, I discovered the theme early in the process of writing the first draft.

The novella’s epigraph is a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which gives voice to the idea that life reasserts itself in constant replenishment, like the tides of the primordial ocean.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that in Ninth-Month Midnight this theme is expressed in the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the existential pain that results when death intervenes to test that bond.

HOW DID YOU KEEP THE NARRATIVE EXCITING THROUGHOUT THE NOVELLA? COULD YOU OFFER SOME PRACTICAL, SPECIFIC TIPS?

One way I kept the narrative exciting (I hope!) was to inject suspense by maintaining the mystery of Salvador Esperanza, as expressed in my tag line: Is he a selfless savior or a self-seeking seducer? Powerful scenes also generate excitement. For example, when the protagonist’s husband confronts her in the psychic’s apartment, emotional fireworks explode. In addition, I withhold information, like details regarding Dolores’s past, till key moments when it will have the most impact, and I end the novella with a surprise I won’t give away.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH READERS ABOUT THE CRAFT OF WRITING?

I’ll share some advice that helped me: Allow yourself to write garbage; just get the words on paper. Once purged, you can sift through the waste to find that kernel of value to expand on. And keep in mind you don’t need an M.F.A. to write. Alternate routes for learning craft abound: Take noncredit courses; attend conferences; enroll in workshops; join writers’ groups; read, read, read. If you have the will, the way is clear.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a reply