The First 4,000 Words

August 31, 2006

Issue #2 of A Novel in One Semester
by Mary Kay Zuravleff, copyright 2006

We're ready to start a novel, despite nerves and a possible lack of subject matter. Novel Class met last night, and the assignment is for everyone to write 4K words this week. That's around 16 pages. I delivered a fast-paced lecture on story and character, and we created a composite character from the inside out as a group exercise.

What E. M. Forster Teaches Us
In Aspects of the Novel, Forster states what may seem obvious. The novel tells a story, and the story must make the reader want to know what happens next.

Before we open a blank document, we can entertain Forster's notion that story, like daily life, exists in time as well as intensity. Any memory, for example, is tethered to both stakes, like the first day of school or the funeral of a college friend.

Which Brings Us to Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott suggests her students adopt one of three overarching structures for their novels: A Day in the Life, An Entire Life, or An Incident in the Life.

This is useful for the first week! None of us admitted to knowing our story, but one of these structures could help situate us as we go along. If I pick A Day in the Life, and 20K words in, I'm describing the morning sun through the window, it's time to get my character out of bed.

Building Character
Forster says a round character is one who is "capable of surprising in a convincing way." My own dictums are that all character attributes serve the story and that each character be self aware.

Using a child's anatomy book with overlays, we made a man from the nervous system up. More analytical than emotional? Circulation problems? Strong and lean? Bulging muscles or slack? Tall? We played out possible ramifications and came up with three story lines.

Wally is a slender and dedicated librarian, something of a loner with a nervous tic in his lower lip and a running habit. He lives in Alabama, where members of the community demand that books on evolution be removed from the library.

Or Wally is a CEO, so impatient and controlling that he can't even drive in traffic and must have a driver. He's always nagging his druggy sister to be more responsible, only to find out that her 15-year-old daughter has been taken away from her and will now be his ward.

I don't remember the third scenario, but if you don't know where to start, you're welcome to Wally. Good luck and stay in touch.