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Question of the Month: Discovering the Story

by Susan Henderson on October 6, 2014

How many of you know precisely what you’re writing about when you begin a novel?

Lantern Parade -- Thomas Cooper Gotch, ca. 1918

I love this painting, Lantern Parade by Thomas Cooper Gotch, because it reminds me of how my stories develop.

Say you’re driving or taking a shower or trying to fall asleep (these are the times most of my stories come to me), and suddenly you see an image in your mind that looks like this painting. Compelling but not quite in focus, much of it in shadow. You love the image, the mood it evokes. But mostly it engages your curiosity.

Where are they going? Is this festive or solemn? Are they silent or singing? You can’t quite see it all, but you slowly start to feel the ground under a patent leather shoe. Whose shoe? Is it broken-in or bought only for this occasion? Why are you drawn to this one girl? Will this be your narrator? Someone important to your narrator? Or simply someone who’s symbolic of… what? Sometimes images don’t hold your interest. They’re too straight forward. But this one has more and more lurking in the shadows. Who are those boys standing above it all? What are they standing on? Is it chilly or humid? What will I see in the daytime? What of this procession will be left on the ground. And where are we?

This is often how it starts… an image or scene, a voice or question comes to you, trembling and underdeveloped. You don’t even know what it is you’re holding in your mind, but it’s got you.

And from here, you are following characters and details, looking under blankets and stones. Where does this one go after the parade? What does she keep in her pockets? Who is she meeting or avoiding? You can do this for hours, weeks, okay, years. Sometimes you even think you’ve got the story figured out.

And then, aha, you bump into that one crucial object or put two unlikely characters together and something clicks. That initial image that had so entranced you has attached itself to something fierce and unsettled at your core. Your story has brought you to a question or conflict that nags at you, that lies tangled in the gut. It’s brought you to something you’re afraid to voice, something that makes you want to shut your eyes, but you are going to follow it anyway. Now you have urgency. Now you have a journey that’s not only for these characters you’ve come to know, but one you must follow to the end because there’s a stake in it for you, an answer you’ve been seeking.

Headlights of a car

This wandering in the dark, hands out, bumping into one thing and then another, is what I love about the work. It’s also what I find maddening. Because you don’t entirely know what you’re doing or where you’re going. E. L. Doctorow described it this way: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

To be honest here, if you have a profoundly bad sense of direction, a drive in the fog means there’s a good change you’ll lose your way or find yourself upside-down in a ditch. Sometimes there’s a lot of  backtracking, needed repairs, and intense searching to find the road again. Eventually, though, you arrive at your destination. Sometimes it’s a place that surprises you, and sometimes it’s a place that is as familiar as an old soul you lost touch with years ago.

Is your writing process anything like mine or something entirely different? Tell your stories! I always learn so much from them.

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If you have a minute, please head over to the Type Rope Walkers blog, where I was invited to share some thoughts on writing. My piece is called, Perseverance: 3 Tips to Help Writers Keep the Faith. Hope it offers help to some of you.

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Many thanks for the mentions in Soho Press, Tumblr, and HarperCollins. Many thanks, as always, to all of you who share your stories here and make our lives richer for it!

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Maury Feinsilber October 6, 2014 at 12:47 am

Although I’ve only (so far) read a couple of his books, there’s an avuncular comfort I find in hearing and reading Philip Roth discuss his work. Just.a few hours ago I read his response to your question in his Paris Review interview, so it seems serendipitous and appropriate to share it here now: How much of a book is in your mind before you start?

ROTH

What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

INTERVIEWER

Must you have a beginning? Would you ever begin with an ending?

ROTH

For all I know I am beginning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s still even around.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those hundred or so pages that you have left over? Do you save them up?

ROTH

I generally prefer never to see them again.

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 1:11 am

Wow, I feel like I just received a present with a giant bow on top of it. This speaks to me so much. Even when I think I know the shape of the story before I begin, even when I work from an outline, it’s what I don’t know yet and what I don’t feel yet that excites me. The ruby cup and Phil’s silver tooth came after several drafts of my first book, and the characters in the book I’m writing now drove past a grain elevator again and again in the first few drafts before I thought to explore the inside of it and all the ghosts it might hold.

Thank you for this, Maury. And for the book you gave me the other week… it’s INCREDIBLE.

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Maury Feinsilber October 6, 2014 at 1:18 am

Since Sunday is the first day of the week, I can officially say ‘You made my week!’ Reading your response is like a fish seeing another fish in a tank after feeling its been swimming around lonely and alone. You’re a lifeline, Sue!

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 1:20 am

xo!

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Christopher Lincoln October 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm

I usually give myself a compass point when I start a new story. “Is vengeance worse than the original crime?” is the guide for the story I’m working on now. It’s placed right after the title page, so I see it every time I open up my document.

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm

I do that too –I’ll have a question that I honestly don’t know the answer to that will guide me. Though I don’t always know the question from the beginning. I love your idea of putting the question where you’ll see it every time you open the document!

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billie hinton October 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm

What a treat – the image itself is gorgeous but the discussion about how it might speak to writing process is perfect.

Mine is much the same, although I have viewed it for years as akin to an archaeological dig. I know there is something there, buried, but I don’t know what it is yet. I am working my way inch by inch with brushes and tiny tools, uncovering what is there.

The thought that the whole thing is there waiting seems important for me in some way. I don’t have to know what it is to keep working. If I try to unearth the whole thing in one big heaving effort I might break it or do damage. So the process becomes the critical piece of the work. Going slowly and carefully and being intent and curious but also willing to put in the care needed to get the thing out in one piece.

I never outline the first draft. What is “known” to me at that point is all conscious material and I want to get to the UNconscious parts. For me, early on, to outline is to break the whole. Or not get to the whole.

That’s for the first draft. For the next passes my metaphor shifts from earth to water – where I envision myself diving deep. It’s easy to write one sentence that says something that’s on the surface, something eloquent, even. But what if I dive deep and view that one thing from its deepest level? What else is going on? What is not seen or known?

I could probably make a case that I have an air pass and a fire pass too but that part of the process is not as clear to me and I also have a thing about not always trying to put words to things that are working well just for the sake of explaining them. I think we all probably have our mysterious alchemy that we need to treasure and keep not so much secret, but just protected and safe.

Hope all is well with you! I thought of you and your son last night – my son is staying at school this fall break and he Facetimed us from the big physics auditorium classroom where he was working QFT problems on the big board and teaching us as he went. I don’t think he was even aware of it but it was like a preview of some future year, like we had traveled in time for a glimpse of what he might be doing there. The chalk was making these perfect little click sounds as he wrote and b/c of the iPhone light sensor it looked like he was surrounded by white light. And my daughter was completely absorbed in what he was saying and doing and it felt like maybe next year I might be seeing the two of them together working on some problem. We will see!

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm

What an interesting thought, the the piece is whole and available and only needs to be dug out! Just beautiful how you describe your process, and how your metaphor creates both faith and patience in the work of excavating. If I take your metaphor through my more insecure lens, I might fear I’m digging in the wrong patch of dirt, but that’s why I have periods of panic and despair. I’m not patient by nature.

I love that you’re constantly asking, What is unseen or unknown. I’m going to ask myself that as I work, good reminder!

What a gorgeous story, your son in white light, the chalk, the face timing. I heard from mine yesterday and it is the best feeling in the world. And the little brother will be taking a train to see him in a few weeks. Not at all ready to have my youngest son graduate from HS this year. I keep hoping time slows down.

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GC Smith October 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm

My writing, like everybidies, I suppose, is generally informed by the five Ws and an H.

What? I often write genre stuff (murder and detection both amateur and professional) and what happens forms the spine of my stories.

Why? Motive again. Mixes with the what. There must be a reason or reasons.

Who? Noodling around with a character or characters may get things going and if not then they’ll become necessary glue to hold the story together.

When? So far my writing has been set in contemporary times but that could change. Never-the-less the when informs the stories as through seasons or night/day or time or encompassed in the immediate or stretched out over days, weeks, months, years.

Where? Land or sea, tropics are the artic. The where can have major influence on the story. I tend to place mine in the semi-tropical South Carolina Lowcountry or bayou Louisiana each of which location have the allure of the exotic.

How? Like with machines storied have to be held together and the how provided the nuts and bolts, the seamless welds, the spot welds, the mortise and dovetail joints or the tab a.) into slot b.) technique.

I can start a story with any of the five Ws or the H. My novel White Lightning, for example, started with the where (at sea) and the what (a treasure hunt). After a hundred pages or so I tossed the ms in the round file. But, I liked some of the characters (the who) and brought them back in a murder mystery set in the world of stock car racing (NASCAR). My Carbon Steel Caress and In Good Faith each were informed by the who. I was writing Private Eye novels and needed a protagonist to carry the stories and an antagonist(s) to get the action going. Finally, Mudbug Tales, A Novel in Flashes began with the where (Louisiana bayou country) and the who (Cajuns). So any of my writing can start at any point but throughout I keep asking myself about the five ws and the h.

Who’s doing what to whom? Why? What’s next? Where is this stuff going? When will we get there? How? I have to keep asking the questions because I keep everything in my head and don’t outline so I never know where I’m going until I get there. It’s a sloppy method, I know, but it affords me fun journeys while I’m dealing with the what’s to come and it also affords me many revisits while editing.

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 3:06 pm

I find that, too. I’ll work on something and end up tossing it in a drawer, or all the way in the trash. But something from that process stayed alive, a setting, a character, an old leaning house, and it appeared again in another story.

I like your idea of journeys and revisiting.

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GC Smith October 6, 2014 at 1:47 pm

My writing, like everybody’s, I suppose,

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Aurelio O'Brien October 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm

My writing is, well… unusual, and my best guess is it is formed first in my subconscious mind–it is busy connecting odd sights and experiences, quirky people I know or meet, interesting news stories, scientific discoveries and predictions, and the social media while I goof along without noticing. While I go shopping, clean house, chat on line, unaware of what is happening elsewhere in my brain, hints and flashes of a story escape. I start to get the feeling that a story is forming without really knowing what it is yet. Then, as if out of the blue and in a flash, a whole story, concept and characters, floods my mind. It’s as if I’ve already written it, or seen it all happen, in only a vague sense, because then comes the actual telling of it with words, its translation to the page so that others will clearly understand and experience it the way id do in my head. I’ve never heard anyone else say that this happens to them–has it anyone?

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 4:26 pm

So well put about the subconscious process of writing: “my best guess is it is formed first in my subconscious mind–it is busy connecting odd sights and experiences, quirky people I know or meet, interesting news stories, scientific discoveries and predictions, and the social media while I goof along without noticing.” I think the deepest writing is happening as we live our lives, and how you live and how you connect the dots is why each of us tells our stories so differently.

I sure wish I experienced the out of the blue flood more often!! I’ve definitely learned not to wait for it or I’d write maybe once every three or four years!

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Aurelio O'Brien October 6, 2014 at 8:31 pm

I’m only assuming it is subconscious thought–could be demon possession or schizophrenia. 😉

Recently, I woke up in the middle of the night with the most vivid scene in my head playing out from one of my future project–I had to get up and write it all out longhand before it vanished. Like déjà vu, the experience was very much like recalling an event that already happened–like I’m a scribe to some other inner being.

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 9:28 pm

That is the wildest thing, and I’ll admit it, I’m jealous.

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billie hinton October 6, 2014 at 7:43 pm

On digging in the wrong patch of dirt – so interesting!! I have never ever had that thought. I think about the collective unconscious and how no matter where we dip down into it, we will find treasure of one sort or another. So I suspect there couldn’t be a wrong patch of dirt. And knowing your work, Susan, I think anywhere you chose to dig you would bring up gold. 🙂

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm

I’m going to try to adopt that idea, that I’m not lost, that its right there, wherever I dig, or something of value, even if it’s not what I thought I was looking for.

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Marilyn Cole October 6, 2014 at 8:57 pm

I am way over my head among all of you here, unpublished as a screenwriter and novelist, and as Sue knows, having a hard time keeping from being pulled in different creative directions (for which she gave me great advice!)…but Mr O’Brien did ask, and I must admit that I was very relieved to read his creative process. Yes! It comes to me out of the blue, all at once, in one instant…all the characters, who they are, what they’ve done, their individual stories, the main story, and what happens…pretty much like watching a movie beginning to end (including flashbacks). And if it happens just as I am falling asleep (that transition time when answers are supposed to come from your subconscious), I stay up to watch it. If I get overly excited, it might be daylight before I can finally fall asleep!! When I get up, I write it as a treatment or synopsis. But the peeling of layers in an image, the discovery, the digging in the dirt, the fog on the road, seem to be a richer and more interesting writing experience. What happens with me is an immediate attachment to the main characters as if they were old friends I’ve known all my life.

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Susan Henderson October 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm

You are our Renaissance artist, a finger and toe in so many art forms. I hope you never choose just one!

I’ve heard of people whose creative process looks like yours and Aurelio’s. I once had a writer tell me that I wasn’t creating properly unless I got in this zone every time. I almost stopped writing forever because she had convinced me that I was doing it all wrong, that I couldn’t reach the magical zone because of this and that quality, this and that blockage. I know she meant well, but I gave up for four or five years because of that helpful advice.

Later, I couldn’t hold back a story that had come to me in my own unique (plodding, uncreative, and blocked) style. I decided to listen to the story and myself instead.

I would so absolutely trust your instinct to move from paper to canvas to film. You have so much to share and I will be happy to discover it in whatever art form it arrives in. What a spiritual experience that must be to have a story come to you whole like that!

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Marilyn Cole October 6, 2014 at 11:43 pm

I disagree with what your writer friend told you. I think each of us gets there in our own way. I also think yours is not “plodding, uncreative, and blocked”, but instead a beautiful, all encompassing road of discovery.

Thank you, Sue, for many things, but mostly for your encouragement and for always seeing the positive!

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2014 at 12:36 am

I am slowly learning to respect my own style and my own timing. All of you here help so much.

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Jessica Keener October 6, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Incredible wisdom here from everyone. I’m silenced by it. So, I guess I’ll talk about silence, which is where I am right now starting on a new novel. I can’t yet speak about it because I might open my mouth and let the cold air in, which could could kill the story that is about the size of an amoeba and needs warmth and darkness to grow. But, what you said about darkness, Sue, I identify with completely. Darkness and silence–they are a natural pair. One goes with the other at this early stage of writing for me. In my need to be silent right now, is also my need to feel my way through the dark. If I stay quiet, then maybe my eyes will see the scenes better the way you see a dream in the dark when you close your eyes, or the way you see light when you close your eyes. Maybe I’ll hear the voices of my characters better. Maybe I’ll feel the objects that have been there all along, right beside me, but take on a different heft and presence in the dark. Maybe I’ll go somewhere unexpected and maybe I’ll allow myself to be brave to go to those places that are harder to reach–scarier to reach–places that I don’t yet understand. This is a glorious collection of wise insights about writing. Thank you so much, Sue, and everyone. (Sorry if this posts twice. My internet crashed the exact moment I pushed the submit button. Is there a metaphor in this?)

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2014 at 12:45 am

This is just a beautiful piece of writing, like a foreword to a book I’d like to own. I can’t say enough about how silence has become important to me. You’ve helped me see that, and so has G.G. Marquez (just reading his interviews). I no longer share my ideas or drafts before I believe in them myself. For me, that’s the cold air I can’t let in. What a beautiful image to think of something small that needs warmth and darkness to grown. Instead of thinking of our ideas as flimsy in the beginning, thinking of those first important cells, the nurturing and protection and nourishment that those new cells need to grow. All of the ideas shared here lend such a sense of beauty and faith to the quiet, the dark, the undeveloped and undiscovered part of our work. I’m really honestly touched by this.

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Lucinda Kempe October 7, 2014 at 12:48 am

So interesting, the journey of getting into what is called ‘flow’.

From Wiki: Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.[1]

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

I get it by stopping thinking about what it is that I am trying to write and just do the work, even if the only work I can do is to edit. Editing often opens the door.

Sometimes I don’t get it at all but soldier on. Flow is a high, a natural one that, to me, makes writing so compelling. It’s addictive.

Here’s how one extreme master does it. From Harper’s, Rivka Galchen’s interview with Haruki Murakami (from the Paris Review) “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four A.M. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine P.M. I keep to this routing every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerized myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Holy Boly, I’d be dead if I could even do part of what Murakami does but I enjoy reading about such extremism. The most important thing is that we get to the end of whatever we’re writing, with or without flow. Perseverance as you said Susan is what counts in the end.

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2014 at 11:50 am

This is exactly what tied me in knots before. It didn’t work with my temperament or my soul or the particular residue of traumas that I’ve had to learn not to ignite.

Wonderful, though, if this helps anyone here. And I agree, whatever our process, there is such a sense of relief, of settling, of joy, of something when you’ve carried a story to its completion, when you’ve given voice and a full lens to the little story fragments that had occupied some space inside of you.

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Tim Chambers November 19, 2014 at 11:35 am

In writing my first novel, I had no idea what the story was. All I had was a great first line that I, somehow, had live up to. Gradually, the image of my central character took form, his posture, his attitude, his background, his losses, his loves, his style. All of it in two short paragraphs. He’s on the road, alone with his demons, feeling the need to talk, so I give him a CB radio and let him banter with truckers, who immediately spot him as not one of their own. He tells them stories they don’t believe, mythologizing his alter ego, attempting to create a reputation that precedes him wherever whereever he goes. As determined as he is to see himself as heroic, it becomes a story of cowardice, and being undone by cowardice, a place I never expected it to go.

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Susan Henderson November 19, 2014 at 1:12 pm

I can’t even tell you how much I love this comment, Tim. What a glorious description of this mysterious process called “writing a novel”! I’m experiencing this more than ever with my new book, which began with an outline, but has become a real process of discovery. And while I never exactly abandoned the structure I’d outlined — I mean, I did, but the original effort is still in there and recognizable — the meat and the heart of the novel has come to me a little more with each draft, the real mining of characters and urgency and what-is-this-thing-really-trying-to-be-about.

Want to link your novel here? It sounds great!

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Tim Chambers November 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Thank you, Susan, for the invitation to link: it’s just a sample, The Doctine of the One True Chili Chapter One published on my website. I’m at work on a second novel, of which I might start posting fragments as I polish them.

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Susan Henderson November 24, 2014 at 2:52 pm

What a great voice this chapter has! Definitely keep a look out for places that might publish portions of your novel: http://www.newpages.com

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Jim Nichols November 20, 2014 at 10:55 pm

I thought I was too late to this conversation (as usual), but I see it’s still alive. Anyway, with me it varies but often it’s all fumble and bumble and toil and persistence until, one fine day, while I’m reading up to where I left off last time, I find a section that grabs me, as if someone else wrote something I want to read more of. When that happens I have a core to work with and something to latch onto. It seems to be voice more than anything else. I’ll go back and apply that voice throughout and if it sticks I can go forward knowing I have something.

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Susan Henderson November 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Since I’ve read your new (soon to be published!) novel, I’m all in favor of the fumble-bumble process you took to create it. It’s so funny when you talk to non-writers and you tell them you have a first or second draft, and they seem to think you just have to run SpellCheck and voila! there’s your novel, like it all came out in the right order and you know what it’s about and have discovered the depth and story arcs of your characters already.

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Jim Nichols November 28, 2014 at 12:47 am

I wish! But I suppose it if were easy…

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