It’s 8:30, my children are in school, and I’m at a cafe in my neighborhood with Bob Dylan and the whoosh of the espresso machine in the background. But for the couple who just sat down near me to discuss their relationship, it’s an ideal place to write. (Oh good, I’m glad they worked that out. They just need to HIRE someone to do the housework.)
I know some of you are writers, and most all of you are readers, and so I hope it will interest you to hear about how someone (well, me) goes about writing a novel, or at least the end of one. And if this is not your cup of tea, I’ll be back to other things in a week or so. But for now, this is it.
It’s very true that you write a novel one word at a time, something people tell you when they sense you’re worrying too much about what you’re going to write, and this worry is keeping you from actually writing. But it does help someone like me (obsessive, anxious, list-making) to at least have a sketch of where a scene is going before I begin writing it. And that’s what a stepsheet is for.
It might not be called a stepsheet (heaven knows I can never remember the words for writing craft techniques), but when I say stepsheet, I mean a narrative I write that describes what’s going to happen in the scene. This is not anything that will become what I write. It’s written in the tone and with the speed you’d use when you send an email in response to a friend’s question: so, what’s going to happen next in your novel? It’s a testament to the tact and delicacy of my friends that no one has actually ever asked me this question. Maybe they know I’m busy asking myself this very thing and so we can turn instead to the interesting question of whether the Oakland A’s might actually win the entire World Series.
But say I had been asked this question. In answer, I’d say something like this in that hypothetical email: The main character begins the scene wanting to make amends for having so thoroughly messed up with the woman he’s discovered he really likes and naturally wants to sleep with. He also knows she might have some information about the victim and he’d like to get her to talk about that. He goes to the cafe where she works (one of those wonderful european cafes with the little machines that deliver candied peanuts, a foosball table, and bottled coke) and tries to get her to sit down. At first, she pretends not to remember who he is. But then her brother…
It’s that sort of thing I’m talking about. Now this would make a terrible novel, because a novel does not narrate events — it dramatizes them, its goal being to get you to feel like you’re within the story. (Unless you’re writing a meta-novel, which thankfully I am not and never will.) But it’s a great way to get yourself into the scene. (A scene, by the way, begins with a character having some goal in mind and, in the end, he or she has either achieved that goal, or been thwarted in an interesting way — either way, this scene should end with your readers begging for whatever follows.)
There you have it then — a sketch of how you go about sketching your chapter. It’s enormously helpful, by the way, to then launch immediately into the chapter itself. That looks sort of like this:
The cafe where Anja worked was like all the other cafes on the square, the same umbrellas advertising [must look up name of bavarian beer], the same [must ask sister what the chairs looked like? rush?], the same mix of American soldiers and German students.
One final note on going downhill without brakes: Even if it’s not perfect, your chapter will most likely be way, way better than you ever dreamed if you, like me, begin with a stepsheet and low expectations and then almost immediately launch yourself into the blank space of the page. Because what will happen — I promise — is that you’ll get to a point where you’re zooming through places you didn’t know were even there, describing a dress or a movement of the air, or a look on a face or a line of dialogue you didn’t know you had inside you. That’s what I love about writing, and the stepsheet gets me there.
Until tomorrow, BL