I began my writing career as a poet, and I’m still a poet. So my journey into fiction was never a planned career move. In fact, my first short story arrived as a complete shock. No kidding.
Because I have written and published poetry in books and magazines for years, I’ve developed a writing schedule that provides time to write every day, always a half hour after breakfast each morning and again after dinner every evening. I also keep a notepad and pen next to the bed to capture any lines of poetry if they float through my mind while I drift off to sleep. This means I’ve not only learned how to write pages of notes in the dark but also how to decipher those scribbles in the morning.
About eleven years ago, as I fell asleep one night, several lines suddenly appeared. Before I could decide to wake up and write them down, a startling thought flared in my mind like a wild firecracker: “This isn’t a poem…it’s the first paragraph of a short story, and I’ve never written fiction before!”
My eyes popped open, I grabbed the notepad, and followed the thread of those lines until I’d written three paragraphs of a short story in the dark. That was my first experience seeing an imaginary character in my mind and following her around, writing down her words and actions.
Throughout the next year different characters and their stories peopled my mind, and I began writing and publishing short fiction in magazines. I had never taken a writing class, so when I began writing poetry in my early thirties, I studied the books of contemporary poets, and eventually developed my own form of free verse poetry. I approached fiction in the same manner. I read and studied all the short story collections I could find, and ultimately created an experimental format for my short fiction, which resembled a prose poem composed of segments, each signaling a scene change or a change in a character’s thought process. Editors loved it, and almost all of my short stories appeared in magazines and literary journals. Those stories were eventually collected in a book that sold well for many years.
But two years later, short fiction no longer satisfied me, and I began to crave a longer form of creative expression, like a novel or novella. I could feel a novel percolating within me, but I knew nothing about the characters or plot. With no revelations emerging from my subconscious, I sensed this novel needed time to develop, so I began writing poetry again and published several poetry books.
Five years passed, and then one afternoon the title of the novel suddenly sizzled through my mind. The next day the main character appeared and announced her name. And on the third day she began telling her story, and a plot emerged. At the time, I had just started a new collection of poetry, but that hardly mattered. I’d been waiting for this novel for years, and once it arrived I dropped everything, grabbed my notebook (all my first drafts are handwritten), and four months later I had completed a short novel. Years later, I would add more material to this novel and republish it as the first in my series of Occult novels for women.
After the main character in that first novel began speaking, the entire writing experience flowed quickly in the white heat of a creative blaze. I always say I’m lucky I remembered to breathe during those amazing months! But don’t let this throw you. That was the first and last time I had to wait for a novel idea. Now new characters and plot ideas arrive frequently, and the day after I finish one novel I usually begin the next.
So, how did I write my first novel? First, I let the main character tell me who she was and what the primary plot of the novel would be. Next, several subplots emerged. And that was all I needed to start writing. For short stories I never used a structured outline. Instead, I patched those stories together organically, as if they were fabric swatches in a quilt, jumping back and forth between the past and present, allowing the characters to tell me what comes next. If you work this way too, you’ll feel comfortable arranging the scene and the characters in your mind, grabbing your notebook, and then following the characters around, writing down their words, thoughts, and actions. However, I found the prose poetry format I created for my short stories wouldn’t work for a novel. It just didn’t feel right. So I tweaked and tweaked and developed another experimental format that I still use today.
As I mentioned before, I do not use an outline for my novels, but I do edit each chapter completely before I continue. I work like this for two reasons. First, I submit each chapter as a short story to magazines and literary journals when I finish it, so the novel will gain publication credits, the kind of acknowledgements publishers and agents love to see. Second, polishing each chapter gives me the time to submerge myself in the characters and to intuit how the story should progress into the next chapter. Best of all, when I finish the last chapter I have a polished novel manuscript. Then it’s just a matter of going back and adding details to earlier chapters, important data that emerged during the process of writing the novel. Finally, I conduct one last punctuation and grammar check, and that’s it. I’ve written another novel ready to be published by one of my publishers.
If you follow this formula, relax, and allow the story to develop organically, you’ll end up with a polished first novel manuscript sitting on your computer desk before you know it. And you’ll enjoy every step of the process!