[SWP: Behind the Book] Next, my Break-Out Novel!

My first She Writes Press novel, A Drop in the Ocean, hit the bookshops in May this year, the culmination of years of writing, revising, and marketing. The glow returns every time I spot my lovely cover or read another nice review, or acquaintances spontaneously tell me how much they loved my book. “I can’t wait for your next one,” they say. “When will it be out?”

When, indeed. I now have a wonderful literary agent, and she is waiting too. “A Drop in the Ocean is a fine book,” she says “and I love your narrative voice. But your next novel is the one that is going to break out.”

So it is bum-back-on-seat time. I tell myself that now that I know so much more about how to write a novel it will be easy to pen a first draft in a few months. 85,000 words at a mere 1000 words a day is 85 days. Less than three months. Then there is the research, the days when the bum simply doesn’t make the seat, the revisions, the polishing. So I’ll give myself nine months to get my breakout novel to the stage where I can send it to my agent. Then, if she considers it has good bones at least and is also something she might sell, there will be more revisions. Twelve months? Even that may be optimistic.

On the plus side, I love writing fiction, once I begin. The journey is as fulfilling as the destination. But first, what is my next book going to be? This is perhaps the most important part of the whole process for me; deciding on a story that I am not just excited about. I need to find a story that I yearn to immerse myself in for a year or more: characters I want to come to know intimately, day by day, and who always have the capacity to surprise me; locations that make my heart sing—very likely places I have been to and loved; a plot or plots that I can develop and keep going for 85,000 words without resorting to inventing scenes simply to fill up space rather than to advance the heart of the story.

I have begun. I rejected at least four story possibilities after spending days on each thinking about characters and plots and not feeling the passion or the surety that this story would be a good fit for the narrative voice I know I am good at and readers (and agents) find engaging. Then IT, the book I next wanted to write, came to me. I’d been re-reading bits and pieces of novels I loved where the narrative voice was strong, and there it was, my favorite novel of all time, a prize-winning novel from the 80s. The themes, the structure, the timeline, the general idea for my own new novel revived me like a glass of crystal water after months in the parched Australian interior. My four main characters would be unique but their relationships with one another would echo those in my favorite novel. My locations would be on the other side of the world and the events and crises that my characters would wrestle with or take pleasure in would be different, but the themes that emerged would be the themes from that 80s novel that resonated with me so deeply.

I began by coming to know my characters—two couples, four long-time friends, each very different. The two women first enter my story as thirteen-year-old friends, and the two men when they are in their early twenties. Their combined story (the part that is told in my book at least) ends when they are in their early fifties, in the year 2000. The story’s heart is the complex relationships between the four friends from their twenties to their fifties. Their relationships are not complex because they have affairs or fancy the spouse of the other couple: my novel will be that strangely rare thing in literature, a story about long term friendships and marriages where love endures in spite of—and because of—events that test every aspect and permutation of those relationships. Love that is as strong at the end as at the beginning.

From early on I had the arc of their story and could express it in a paragraph, and knew in essence how it would begin and end. I had a clear structure in mind. And from almost the beginning I had my title—which happens to reflect the main theme of the story. I know the title might change, but it won’t be me who changes it. Most titles need work; a few are just right from the start.

I decided on my characters’ names and then browsed the internet looking for people who looked like them as 20-something-year-olds and as 40-something-year-olds. I recognized each one as soon as I saw their likeness—sometimes on a site that showed hairstyles or fashions of the late sixties, sometimes in a photo from a random news story or advertisement. I pasted these photos into my trusty Scrivener writing program. I developed their personalities, their back stories, their relationships with their parents and their children, their desires and fears (here my 30 years as a clinical psychologist came in handy!). By this point I had a detailed timeline where I placed my characters at the ages they met, completed their university degrees, began or finished jobs, welcomed children into the world, grieved, and lived through key events in their personal lives. I looked for local and world events on that timeline that would have or could have impacted on them. The dramatic points of their story came to me in all sorts of ways—in a dream, because of a news story, because of something that I read in a book or saw in a movie, by thinking through my own life and the numerous ups and downs along the way, and because of external real events that happened during their lives. For example, it became clear to me that a Vietnam War protest march in Australia marked the meeting of one couple, and they met the other couple during a later Vietnam War protest march. Operation Babylift, where babies and children were flown out of Vietnam to the US and Australia in a desperate attempt to save them before the fall of Saigon, became another significant event for my four friends. A James Taylor song emerged early on as an important theme song for my two couples, and I researched when he first sang it and when my couples could have heard him singing it in person years later during a concert in Australia. That song at that time would fill a poignant hole for them in a time of relationship crisis. A line from that song is the title of my book.

All these pieces I pasted into Scrivener; I will re-read them, change them, develop them as I go along.

And now all that remains is to write the damn book!

PS: Can you guess the title of the novel that inspired me? Not that I’m telling!

My debut novel, A Drop in the Ocean won the Gold for Best Fiction, Australia and NZ in the 2016 IPPYs, and the Silver for Women’s Fiction in the 2016 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards. 

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Comment by Michelle Cox on December 28, 2016 at 10:10am

Sounds fabulous, Jenni!  Thanks for taking us into your inner-world of structure, plotting and character.  Good luck writing!

Comment by Diana Y. Paul on December 23, 2016 at 3:01pm

Love the description of the inner turmoil in deciding which of a number of possible stories you decided to write about and keep company with for as long as a year (or more)!  Good going, Jenni--can hardly wait to read your next novel!

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