How to Write a Novel from Notes, or Not

Good morning, friends—

Since I dedicated last week’s newsletter to the new story collection, it seems appropriate that I should write a little bit about the new novel as well. It comes out on April 6, same day as the stories, and I’ll be doing a virtual tour for the two. Event details will be delivered via this newsletter.

I wrote Subdivision in the summer and early fall of 2017. I’ve never had more fun writing anything, and the first draft came faster than any of my other novels—four or five months, if I remember right (followed, of course, by three years of revisions to untangle the mess). The idea for the book came from an event I did in 2015 at SUNY-Brockport. The organizers put me up at a bed and breakfast, which they introduced with an email: “And just a heads up: the B&B is a little trippy. It's run by two older ladies: a nun and a judge!”

The B&B was great—you should stay there if you find yourself in the area—and the nun and the judge were delightful. But the germ of the idea came from their dining room, where a large table was dominated by an enormous cardboard puzzle, which they encouraged me to work on. Later that night, I wrote to a friend about the event: “At the guesthouse, I was invited to come downstairs anytime and work on the puzzle.” And the friend said, that sounds like the first line of a novel.

I copied the line into a new note on my phone and forgot about it for a while. (I was working on Broken River at the time.) But that note eventually became the repository for various random other stuff I’d been thinking about: a hotel where I was given directions to the wind shelter, in case of a tornado, and another hotel where city council meetings were being televised live into the lobby. A guy I knew who often burst inexplicably into tears. A creepy school bus my kids invented. An afternoon I spent doing speech transcriptions online. In Minneapolis, two buildings connected by a skyway, one of them abandoned and in disrepair. An incomprehensible pop-up book, birthday-party “blind bags,” photographs of abandoned malls and architectural oddities, “always-listening” digital assistants. A painted sign on a steel door that had flaked almost entirely away, leaving only a ghostly outline. The phenomenon of forgetting things when you leave a room. The time my daughter and I became strangely freaked out, on vacation, by a kite flapping and dodging in the wind over an empty beach: it couldn’t be hovering there on its own, but no one seemed to be flying it.

A lot of these observations, I came to realize, were about hidden knowledge—things that were concealed, like emotions, or things that couldn’t be fully understood. Vague dangers, mysterious connections to unseen entities. I thought about how memories—and literature—process trauma. (A good book on this subject is Unclaimed Experience, by my colleague Cathy Carruth.) I decided that my guesthouse visitor would be an unreliable first-person narrator, a nameless amnesiac in the grip of inexplicable feelings.

I was talking to a graduate student the other day about her novel-in-progress. She’d taken a lot of notes on her protagonist’s psychology, motivations, personal history, and so on, and wanted to know if I found this kind of exercise useful. The answer was yes, sure—character sketches and outlines are a boon to a novel, especially if you haven’t tried writing one before. But I also warned her against the pitfalls of hewing too closely to your notes. Reading over mine for Subdivision, I’m struck by how wrong I was about it; if I’d remained committed to including everything I thought I should, the book would have ended up stiff and uninspired. What you think you want to do might turn out to be a jumping-off point for what you really want to do. In this book, I often found myself writing towards a plot point or character beat I absolutely needed to include, then got distracted by something, “wasted” a couple of days chasing it down, and finally realized that my original idea was wrong and the distraction was the important thing.

Or, as Oblique Strategies puts it, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

See you next time—
John