This is no. 55 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When you’re reading a good novel, you’re not usually thinking about the passages the author cut, the intense revision process, or all the pages the author wrote in order to get to The Writing. These sweaty, often clumsy and inelegant pages don’t show up in the book you’re holding, but they were essential to finishing the novel.
My first novel, The Evening Hour, about Cole Freeman, a small-time drug dealer and nurse’s home aide living in the coalfields of West Virginia, took six years to write. The novel uses third-person limited narration, but in order to figure out Cole, I filled up notebooks with him speaking in first person—this voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the novel, but it revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings. I also wrote monologues for the other characters to learn how people viewed Cole. I did not intend for any of this “extra” writing to go into the novel, but it was invaluable—a way for me to gather information about Cole’s family and community, and better understand his conflicts, secrets, and desires.
I’ve kept writing journals for years; they’re a hodgepodge of personal memories, ideas, quotes, observations. A few years ago, when I team-taught a novel writing class with the author Alexis Smith, she wisely suggested keeping a journal dedicated solely and entirely to your novel—nothing goes in unless novel-related.
My new novel, The Prettiest Star, took around four and a half years to write. Most of this time, I was sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. But I also filled up four Decomposition Books with material. These novel-notebooks are raw and intimate, brewing with my questions, concerns, ideas. They contain crucial writing around and behind the novel, the words and scraps of ideas and shimmers of light that spill beyond the pages of the manuscript. They’re a form of play, and all writers need time to play. Now that the novel is finished, they’re an archive, and a reminder of how messy, exhilarating, joyful, and confounding the writing process is, a mix of hard work and faith and a little bit of magic.
Found in the pages of my notebooks:
• Lists of scenes to write
• Character sketches
• Character freewrites and monologues: their dreams, hopes, fears, memories
• Chapter outlines
• Lists of clothing, movies, TV shows, music
• Descriptions of characters’ rooms
• Hypotheticals: What would happen if this happened, or that?
• Blueprints of houses
• Maps of the town
• Early working titles
• Lists of character names, street names, restaurants
• Lists of objects from the eighties (sticker books, Rubik’s Cube, etc.)
• Notes on important events, imagery, or places to return to (i.e. the abandoned drive-in)
• Questions, questions, questions—about characters, plot, structure, themes. How does Jess find out Brian has AIDS? How do the rumors get started?
Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program.Thumbnail: Jon Tyson