Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Molly Cochran on the art of writing and the science of finishing, Part 1

With thirty books to her name, including a number of bestselling and award-winning novels, Molly Cochran is a veteran writer. Yet after a recent break from her writing, she found that while starting a new novel may be like riding a bike—you can always remember how to get back on and point your nose in the right direction—she is ready to allow that finishing the journey takes some serious dedication, grit, and know-how. Kathryn Craft interviewed her about the genesis of her upcoming Write Stuff session. Here’s part one.

Kathryn Craft: Why did you decide on the topic “Finishing Your Novel”?

Molly Cochran:  I believe that novel writing is one of the most difficult things anyone can attempt. The ironic thing is, everyone except writers thinks it’s easy. Several dozen people have made this proposal to me: “Hey, I’ve got this GREAT idea for a book. I just need someone (me, presumably) to write down the words!”

Two facts: one, everybody has ideas. Two, it takes about three thousand ideas (give or take a thousand) to make a novel, and they all have to be relevant to the plot, intrinsically sensible, fit into the belief system of the work as a whole, grow out of a previous event or reaction, and lead to the next idea (which can be a plot point, character revelation, thematic element, or something else). What you end up with is a giant macramé of ideas that you have to construct solidly enough so that no holes show. The further along you go, the harder it gets to keep all the ideas working together, developing, growing, evolving into new, increasingly complex patterns.

This is why finishing a novel is so hard. When most people say they have an idea for a book, what they really have is an idea for the BEGINNNING of a book. Or a hook or twist for the END of a story. But it’s the MIDDLE where you meet the dragons. That’s the part that eats you.

But there are ways past the dragons. Most of them are technical, things you can do just by working hard, planning ahead, or being willing to try. Some are psychological, like the idea of embracing selfishness.

K: Why is it hard for writers — or people in general — to finish what they’ve started?

1.     Lack of preparation.
2.     Lack of confidence.
Part of what I mean by “preparation” is knowing for sure that you want to do what you’re planning to do. At one conference where I held a workshop, someone presented an idea that was just too small for a novel. Remember, a novel is leisurely, exploratory, organic. It grows, so it needs room to grow. (Incidentally, I told the prospective author about my reservations regarding her story. She got angry and stomped out of the workshop. I don’t know if she ever finished her book, but I haven’t seen her name on the Times bestseller list).

Also, a novel takes a lot of time. I was astonished to read that Daphne du Maurier wrote the iconic Rebecca (voted Best Novel of the Century by the Mystery Writers of America) in “three or four months” (her words). Usually it takes a year or more, but even three months is a long time to spend doing something you really don’t want to do, or writing about something about which you’re not tremendously interested.

Another part of preparation is knowing what you’re going to write before you write it. I’m really tired of arguing in defense of outlines. All I can say is that I use them. Religiously. When I’m stuck, I outline. Outlines do not deter or lessen my creativity. Au contraire, I find I’m much freer intellectually and creatively if I’m not always worrying about what the next story point is going to be.

Lack of confidence is more amorphous, and therefore more difficult to alter. I don’t think I’m being a rabid feminist by saying that women suffer more in general from lack of confidence than men. I’m not going to posit all the reasons why that’s true, but one of them is the idea we have that women are born to serve. Our families, our elders, our husbands, and particularly our children. We live in a society in which children rule. Johnny needs to go to Little League, so of course Mom will take him. The novel she’s (secretly) working on can wait. It’s not important, anyway.

All I’ve got to say about that is that James Joyce made his family (wife, two kids) live in abject penury for 17 years while he wrote (and finished) Finnegans Wake.

But I’ve got a lot to say about selfishness.

…and Molly will continue dispensing her invaluable wisdom on this topic in our next blog post!

Days until the conference: 9!

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