The things that people want to know about writing are things that writers can't tell them. Not because we don't want to or because we're stingy or mean, but because we can't. Not won't. Can't. The things we can tell you about writing, we do. Here's how to write decent dialogue. Here's why a bundle of adverbs are not your best bet. Here's how story works. This is a driving question. This is how to build tension. These are tools that can make a character come to life. Those things are craft concepts and we teach them all the time. We write books about them. We use their vocabulary in classes and critique groups and we improve people's writing by practicing them. But all the craft practice in the world will not make art. Craft practice enhances art, but it doesn't create it.
I thought I would describe the novel writing process as it seems to work for me. This still isn't going to tell you how to make art, and it is not The Way To Write A Novel, but maybe it'll tell you something.
1 - 18 months:
A novel is coming. I feel it first, like an after taste. Then I hear it -- the sounds of its winds, its waters, the crackle of its fire. I start to see pieces. A leaf, a shutter, a piece of sidewalk. I don't know what any of this means, but I pay attention. A character starts to talk -- usually only one, and I don't know what to do with him or her. But I listen.
I go about my life. I work. I go to yoga. I drink red wine. I buy shoes. While all this is happening, Basement Cat is busy gathering souls for my very own basement in my belly. Basement Cat gathers books, sounds, CDs, plants, ideas, grief, questions, resentments, anger, tenderness, people (living and dead ones), television shows, and knick knacks. I don't know why he's gathering what he's gathering, but I have learned to trust him (and loan him the money to buy what he needs). These things, some literal and some metaphoric, get stored under black Basement Cat sheets. I feel the basement filling up. I literally feel this in my shoulders. I feel my dreams changing. My choice of reading material changes. My handwriting changes. I start researching things I never thought about before. My throat gets more full and more full and more full until finally it can't hold the door to the basement closed. I have to go down there and move things up the stairs.
18 - 24 months:
I don't know what to bring up, so I usually start with the lightest things, the things easiest to identify. Those get me started. I write about them. I listen to them, but they're not real. They're the early drafts. They run out of steam and I have to go back down in the basement and bring up heavier things, dustier things, louder things. Rarely are those the right things either, but I'm getting closer. Sometimes I arrange them in the wrong order in the upstairs. Sometimes I'm closer to right. Usually by this point, which is about draft number four or five, I see the thing that the book is about and it is too dang heavy and too dang old to pull up those stairs. I might get hurt. I might break my ankle. I might not be able to get rid of it once I haul it up the stairs. So I'll mess around with the things I've already pulled up the stairs but I know they're not the right things yet. They're the almost-right thing, and almost-right can be quite seductive.
24 - 36 months:
"Bah! Fine, Basement Cat!" I'll say, after rearranging the wrong things too long. "I will bring it up." Basement Cat is not paying attention to me. He is out gathering for the next book, which explains why more than once characters from a current book turn out to be making an early appearance for a different book. Basement cat is a trickster like that. Sometimes Basement Cat is just gone, and I have no idea where he went or if he'll be back or if I just wrote the last story I'll ever write. I forget that Basement Cat is a member of the Teamsters and has to take mandatory breaks. One day I'll remember this.
By this time, I know what it is. I know what's under the black Basement Cat sheet in the corner of the basement. Sometimes I argue with it. "No, not about that. I'm not writing about that (again, or still, or for the first time)." But it wins. It always wins because my body simply cannot hold it. And when I finally drag that crazy thing up the stairs and pull the sheet off of it, it sings. And I have a book.
I have this book not because I'm special, but because I listen to what Basement Cat is doing, and then I tell his stories. That's what I do. I write things down that I hear, that I notice, and that have been living in my basement-belly. I show up for this frequently, or else Basement Cat will get angry and start giving me stomach aches and back aches. He's vengeful like that, which I can understand because he did do all that work out gathering things for the basement while I was off having a pizza or seeing Phantom of the Opera.
In the LOLcat world, Basement Cat steals souls. Basement Cat never stole my soul. He always had it. From the very first story I wrote in kindergarten, Basement Cat was watching. My novels seem to take me about three years. They swim around in my basement-belly, knocking into things, clearing out the spiders and the rust, until they burst out like a geyser. I've learned this over the last twenty-five years of treating writing seriously. I've learned about the furniture, and the gathering, and Basement Cat's relentless search for things to bring back from the hunt. My job is to cull through those things. Keep. Store. Release. Keep. Store. Release. That's how I write books. I sift through what seems to be garbage until I find the life still beating underneath too many sock monkeys and the books on the Louisiana Bayou, and then I breathe the life I find into sentences. I can't say any more than that. I just don't know.
Long Live Basement Cat!