Finishing the novel

photo: textures of Budapest, Caroline Allen

In these pages, Art of Storytelling (AofS) writers journal their writing process as they work on novels, memoir and short stories. AofS, a coaching service for writers, gives one-on-one weekly support to writers and nonwriters attempting to write short stories, novels and memoir. See the web site for more details.

AofS writers will regularly explore in this blog their journey through characterization, setting, plot and theme, and through the emotional eddies and backwaters of the writing process. These writers are real estate agents, accountants, financial managers, restaurant owners, journalists, visual artists and much more. They have come to the table with a love for writing, a passion for storytelling, and the stomach to follow the process wherever it may take them.

Name of blogger: Caroline Allen
Title: Owner, Art of Storytelling
Bio: See website for bio

I have just dotted the final i on my first novel Earth. Although I have dozens of short stories under my belt, and 20 years’ experience being published as a journalist, Earth was an undertaking of such phenomenal proportions. It took everything I had, and then it asked for more. The first story that was to become the beginning of the novel was written 12 years ago. Dozens of short stories followed. I didn’t know they all fit into the chapters of a novel until 1 ½ years ago, when a therapist suggested that all these short stories might just be a novel.

I went home, sat at the computer, and lo and behold…all of the short stories fit together like a puzzle! Still, there was much (oh so much) rewriting and reworking to do to properly structure it. I took a writing sabbatical in January ’06 for two months to Tofino, a small coastal town on Vancouver Island in Canada to come up with a (very) rough draft.

It was an intense and mystical experience. The cabin I stayed in was in the depths of the rainforest, a hundred yards from a torrential ocean and wild beach. Coyote were known to roam the beach at night. I wrote until 1 p.m. every day. I was on a strict vegetarian diet for the writing session (the two weren’t supposed to go together, the writing and the strict diet, but now looking back, I suppose they did go together). I’d cook my organic meal with rice, put it in Tupperware, and go through the rainforest to the beach. I sat on a log and had my lunch. It was the rainy season, so often I was covered head to foot in a green vinyl rain suit, the hood tied hard beneath my chin. My food got wet, but I didn’t mind.

I had intense metaphysical dreams throughout that period of writing in Tofino. I wrote like a fiend. I cried a lot.

In the middle of the night in the cabin, my grandparents came to me. I could hear their heartbeats as echoes in the depths of that fecund earth. They said: “Thank you for telling our story. You have no idea how hard life was for us.”

I had no money when I was finished with the first rough draft of Earth to get the bus from Tofino to Vancouver City, so that I might take another bus back to Seattle. (The bus service takes one through a mountain pass that is often snow covered, with cars on their sides down in a valley, having slid sideways on the ice, and bear sightings a norm.)

I put on my raingear (apparently, during the rainy season, all of the people in the small town of 1,650 people recognize each other at a distance by the color of their raingear. A yellow woman walks by, and “Oh look it’s Jeannette, etc). I bicycled the two miles into the village to post a sign. I used to read tarot cards to make a living. The sign read:

International psychic from the US for a short visit will read your future. Call 555-1212.

Within hours, the phone began ringing. I read for dozens of local people, from the town’s artists to the employees of one of the popular spa resorts. It was such a fantastic way to meet people.

I had the money. I was able to go home.

When I got back to Seattle, and to all the pressures of “normal” life, I put the novel aside for a few months. I was spent. Slaughtered. I was exhausted beyond all reason. They don’t tell you this, that you need recovery time after writing a novel. It’s like major surgery, and you have to lie around a lot. Earth needed another draft, but I didn’t have it in me. I wrote a few short stories. I taught writing classes. I began my writing coaching business. Earth called to me again, after several months. Come back. Come back.

I went.

I decided this time to go to Europe. I couldn’t seem to finish the novel in Seattle. Some element was missing – I suspect Seattle was too politically correct, too safe, too clean, too middle class. I needed the rough streets of London, where I’d lived for years as a journalist.

The moment I landed the novel wrote itself. I had to try to slow down the flow. I have severe repetitve strain injury from typing in newsrooms all over the world, and use voice software, and the software couldn’t keep up with the output. I found all of this productivity in London humorous, since Earth takes place in the most rural of America; it’s a novel about American peasants.

When I finished Earth last week, the feeling of completion wasn’t about word count, number of chapters, etc. It was a feeling of being spiritually finished. What I was trying to convey had been conveyed. With spirit. I was able to release so much.

Now I really need a break. And then, when it’s time, there will be the joy of finding an agent and publisher! And after that, I’ll begin to write the second novel: Air.


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