When one of us took her first fiction writing class, the instructor wrote on the board of the very first lesson, “any way’s the right way.” His point was that there is no formula for how to write a story or, more broadly, a novel. It’s whatever works. Another writer, Annie Lamott, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird that includes a chapter entitled “Sh-tty First Drafts.” (Her point being, just get stuff on paper, because you are going to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite before your story is done. It’s OK to write “sh-tty first drafts.”)
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some “helpful hints for self actualization as a novelist” that might include how long a story needs to be to be called a novel (rather than a novelette or short story), the fact that novels usually have one or more subplots, and so forth. But in terms of the actual writing, there are no rules. Or, to quote one of us who as a naval reservist defeated (more correctly, “whupped”) active duty Marines in a field exercise by smuggling in night vision scopes (an action that was, strictly speaking, against the rules of engagement): “Rules? There are no rules. This is war!”
“Any way’s the right way” is an apt description of how we write, especially since we each have different ways of writing. One of us is a plotter and planner, and the other is more a “just start writing” person who writes scenes, then figures out where they go and how they get glued together. Which method works the best? “Yes.”
Take Book 3, which is as yet untitled (though Blue Scream of Death might be a winner). The current construction of Book 3 resembles nothing so much as the Winchester Mystery House (for the uninitiated, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, he of “Winchester rifle” fame, believed that if she stopped building, she would die, which is why her house has rooms with no discernible purpose, halls that lead nowhere, and so forth: they were just stuck there to keep the house going and growing. Eventually, we’d like the Winchester Mystery House of Book 3 to magically morph into something grand like Kedleston (a particularly lovely neoclassic house in Great Britain and a particularly fine example of the work of architect Robert Adam).
As of today:
We know most of the story takes place in Hawai’i.
We know Emma is working on some kind of financial system implementation – and she hates financial system implementations – at a to-be-decided military activity in Hawai’I that has an acronym nobody understands except a few people in the Navy. But the name ends in “PAC” because every Navy activity in the Pacific area ends in PAC. (Like ComNavBaskRobPac, the Baskin Robbins concession at Navy bases in the Pacific. OK, I made that up.) We know that the military has “different” requirements for systems that causes Emma to be more interested in the assignment than would otherwise be the case (e.g., ships deploy, submarines submerge, and you don’t always have wireless or other connectivity when you want it).
We know Emma gets a lot of surfing in and also spends a lot of time in traffic jams on the H1 (doesn’t everybody?)
We know that Hawaiian culture plays a significant part in the story, both “true” Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian language, lua (Hawaiian martial arts), hula, and so on as well as ‘fun stuff about Hawai’I’ – pidgin, tiki drinks, etc. not to mention strange tourist apparel. (And is there ever strange tourist apparel in Hawai’i, starting with the number of people (men included) who really, really should not be wearing a thong. A burkha would be a public service. I’m just sayin.’)
We know Keoni is back on the mainland going to graduate school, and he hates surfing in the cold, sharky waters of northern California (doesn’t everybody?) after the warm, perfect waves of Hawai’i.
We know that Emma’s mom comes to visit and helps her investigate. Oh boy.
Oh, and we know we have a dead body. Or pieces of one, eew (you’ll have to read the book).
As it stands, Book 3 has a lot of sections written where character’s names are XX and YY, we haven’t developed backstory on those characters, and we haven’t quite figured out the timeline (that is, when does chapter 1 take place, chapter 2, and so forth), in short, we have the literary equivalent of Mrs. Winchester’s halls that go nowhere. But we are going through the existing chapters, creating a timeline, fleshing out the plot – including subplots – and making sure that we follow through on character quirks from other books (after all, our characters are getting older, even if slowly). And lastly, while we are not quite to the point of “literary liposuction,” we do practice “flesh out and flush out.” We flesh out dialogues, descriptions, scenes and settings that need “more detail and a sense of place and time.” We “flush out” because, as much as we love turning a clever phrase, no matter how entranced we get with a section – a character, dialogue, a scene, whatever – if it does not work or does not advance the story, it gets flushed. (Sometimes we cut cute sections and stick it in a Word document for possible resurrection in another book, another form, another scene.)
One of us who is particularly gun shy (Winchester shy?) about organization keeps telling herself, “any way is the right way.” And so she – and we – proceed to dream about, and remember, and place ourselves in Hawai’i and in Emma’s shoes, or “slippahs,” brah. And with that, we are off to find inspiration in a Mai Tai.