Writing a novel is messy. It’s a willful entrance into the unknown. It’s uncomfortable and weird and it feels wrong a lot of the time, especially in the beginning. And then one day you notice a gathering of clouds just above your head. These aren’t normal clouds. They don’t block out the light so much as start raining down some information on you that lets the light in. Call it what you will. The universe, the divine, God, Jesus, Goddess, the muse, or woo-woo. You can even take credit for it and call it your own brilliance if you want. A friend of mine and I call it the woo-woo at work, the woo at work for short. To me it means that you have touched the novel-in-progress enough times now that the work has started touching you back.
Here are some examples from my own life as a writer:
- While writing The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson (to be published by Atria Press, January 2017) I half-heard a story on NPR about a town called Drunken Bride. I immediately thought that this would make a great name for the town in Texas where my character was about to be hanged. But I couldn’t use it. It was taken. There would be associations with this town that I did not want in my book. But NPR reruns stories, and when I heard that one again I realized that I’d misheard the name of the town. I can’t remember what the town was really named, but I do remember rejoicing that the name Drunken Bride was now mine to use.
- While writing Home Across the Road I dreamed about a person named Abolene. I’d never heard the name before, and knew nothing of the town in Texas by that name. I liked the name and decided to use it in my novel, thus creating the backstory about a pair of stolen abalone earrings (mistakenly called abolene) on which the entire novel is hinged.
- While writing Life Without Water I struggled with a name for the commune my characters lived on. I hated every name I’d come up with. Chicken Love, Lazy Love, Chicken Ranch, Peony Place. I don’t know why I was so focused on chickens, but I could feel that none of the names fit and that this mattered. Then one night after work while walking my dog something registered for me in a totally new way. I lived along a very curvy road, so curvy that a full moon would often be on my right driving in, and then on my left as I approached my home. My novel already had a treacherous driveway, filled with curves and pot holes and puddles. The commune received its name that night – Two Moons, named for the way the moon moved from one side of the driveway to the other.
In each of these cases, and a million more I could mention, I felt the story touching me back, saying to me, “Yes, thank you, I see you are writing me and that you’re serious about it and I’d like to help. But I have no legs or arms or even voice. So the only way I can speak to you is through the work and through your own ability to pay attention.”
May the work speak to you. It’s so frustrating when it doesn’t. It feels like it never will. And then one day those clouds start gathering and pelting you with bits and pieces. Trust that. For me it never comes all at once. My clouds don’t deal in deluge. But I have faith (and knowledge) that they are as loyal to the story as I am.