Writing a Novel is Like Parenting a Child
It begins with the dream. The writer thinks to himself, “I think I would like to write a novel.” The idea of the novel, much like the idea of children, is very different than the thing itself. So many parents go into parenting with idealistic thoughts. Their children will be wonderful. Their children will never throw fits and will eat vegetables without complaint. The novelist is similarly naïve. Our characters will be vibrant, and the complexities of plot will make our book a real page-turner. Words will flow from my fingers like water from a well. I will sit down every day, eager to paint for my readers with stunning prose.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it was like to write a novel,” said no one ever.
We dream of our novel-child. We brainstorm and we freewrite. We search for ideas that are big enough to fill a book. We wait and we search. Sometimes, we wait for nine months. Eventually, an idea begins to form. At first it is just a speck, a tiny What-If? The speck grows. We realize it could be something amazing. The writer and the parent are filled with joy. Here is my tiny miracle!
The tiny miracle grows. At first it is just a clump of stuff. The ideas are chaotic and tumbling. But the idea grows. It gets bigger. It develops arms and legs and tiny little body parts. The thing is starting to look more and more like a story each day. The writer has brainstormed some characters, and a basic plot, and perhaps even a villain. When the idea seems ready, it is born. Little does the writer know, writing a novel is much like childbirth too. There will be lots of screaming and pain, and the poor mother will have to talk herself out of giving up many times. The writer may very well beg for drugs by the end.
The baby is born. At first, it is covered with gunk. The writer gives the idea baby a warm bath to make it clean. Toes and fingers are counted, the writer marvels at her shiny and pink idea baby. Babies are cute and adorable. Every parent sees their baby as the most beautiful of all babies. In the beginning, the writer is filled with joy at having to take care of the helpless child. Brand new novels must be nurtured and held. They must be fed. On occasion, they need to be changed. After a few weeks, the writer is exhausted. She hasn’t slept in weeks. She is lonely and slightly delirious. Onward she plods, for surely this novel must sleep through the night sometime?
Adorable babies become screaming toddlers. Their schedule is more regular, and thank god that Mommy and Daddy can finally sleep all night. But toddlers demand constant attention throughout the day. They decide they want to wear pink polka dots with purple zebra stripes. We try to tell the toddler-novel that no she cannot wear that because it doesn’t match. In response, she throws a fit. The novel does not like rules. The characters want to run free and be wild. The parent must decide which battles to fight. Do we just let it go and tolerate the ugly outfit or demand that she change and deal with a pissed off toddler the rest of the day? The author wants to listen to the voice of her characters. But if we let these characters run rampant, they’ll go nuts. Next thing you know our romance novel will involve a jewelry heist and terrorists with backpacks. How the hell did that happen? Toddlers.
Fast forward to the middle grades. The novel has been exposed to the rules of the writer for some time now. The characters and plot have established a more permanent voice and personality. They become more independent, and less impulsive. The parent and child settle into a pattern of sorts. Each knows what to expect of the other, and what is expected of him or her. The novel goes more smoothly, for the most part. Trouble sometimes happens, but the parent knows how to steer the child back to the right path. These years can sometimes be boring, and many writers abandon projects at this stage for the emotional roller coaster of a new idea baby. The smart parents know that these years are just the eye of the storm, for the teenager is blooming deep in the heart of that easygoing child.
The teen years are where it all falls apart. The child is hormonal and impulsive, and has a lot of attitude. The child finds new ways to get into trouble that the poor parent never saw coming. That climax we avoided figuring out comes back to haunt us. We have no ending for our book. Or we have an ending but we have no idea how to get the characters there. We have all these characters doing all these things in all these crazy situations, but no way to corral them into an ending worthy of the rest of the book. We find out our main character has been smoking weed. Or she doesn’t really like the love interest you’ve given her the entire novel. We want to quit. Just throw up our hands and walk out. Let them figure it out for themselves. They might end up in jail. Or worse, living in our basement forever. The abandoned manuscript section of our hard drives and file cabinets hold the ghosts of these basement dwellers. The parent-writer is close to the end, but it seems like forever. The unruly teenage novel appears to be an insurmountable obstacle. Good parents slog through it. They take the good with the bad, and they do the best they can with what they have. Trusting that the child will remember the lessons taught to them and make right choices. The successful novelist blocks out the mocking voice of the novel. “You’re not the boss of me!” the novel cries petulantly. The writer keeps typing. With every keystroke, she thanks the writing gods that she hasn’t chucked the novel-child into the fire today.
And one day, the child graduates. Thank god, the writer parent says. It is done. For most parents, this is when children leave home and go out into the world to make their own fortune. The novel does this as well. Granted, there’s a lot of revision first. But eventually, the novel will be sent out into the world to sink or swim on its own. We cannot save it. It’s got its big girl panties on, and the words have all been written. We can call and try to give it advice. The writer can fine tune through edits and taking the suggestions on rejection slips. The novel goes out into the world to pursue the novelist’s dream, but it will forever remain the writer’s baby.