Writing Process (Part 3)

I made sure to squeeze in a safari when in Africa.

I ended the previous installment of this journey of how the idea of a novel turned into the physical manifestation of the novel in my (and in many other people’s!) bookcase with the decision to move to the Outer Banks where I could begin to do the actual writing. (You can go back to the beginning of the story and start with Part One if you haven’t read that yet.)

As I mentioned in the Part Two, I spent two weeks in Africa at a writers’ workshop. While there, I focused my time on developing the premise of the book as well as pinpointing the emotions that I wanted to elicit from readers both throughout the book and then at the end.

I was curious about what I had come up with while in Africa, so I pulled out all of my notes from that trip to see what I might have jotted down.

The first thing I found is what I came up with for the novel’s premise while brainstorming on the shores of Mozambique in 2017 and before a word of the novel was written. Here is what I wrote:

Keeping secrets in families leaves future generations unequipped to consciously navigate their lives, while revealing painful truths releases future generations from needless suffering.

I’ll let those of you who’ve read the book determine whether or not I succeeded in illustrating that!

As for the emotions, this is what I wrote about how I wanted readers to feel when they got to the end of the book. It’s kind of long, and it’s written as a stream of consciousness, but it’s pretty important to my process. This is really where it all began. 

Relieved. And at peace. At the end, I want it to feel like the reader and the characters have just survived a war. An assault. They are exhausted but exhilarated. They know the danger has passed, and they feel safe for the first time. For the first time, they have a support system, a foundation that is solid that they can count on. The storm is over. A sense of calmness washes over like water, like walking into the ocean and going under, coming up, upright with face towards sky, with hands brushing hair back, smoothing it back as the water runs down it. Tranquility. Content. Satisfied. Like the end of any action/adventure movie. After intense action – car chases, kidnappings, near death experiences, fights, betrayals, kidnappings, hostage taking, killings, explosions, assassinations, shootings – the viewer is rewarded with a resolution, a defeat, a complete defeat, of the bad guys, of the enemy, Peace has been restored to the world. It’s back to the equilibrium. The citizens can sleep well at night. The community comes together to celebrate. Before they had to hide. In order to achieve an ending of tranquility at this kind of level, I must swing the pendulum completely to the other side. The higher it goes on one side is the higher it will go in emotion on the other. Huge stakes, high tension, great pain, massive defeat, hopeless defeat. Only though this will the sense of relief and wholeness at the end be felt with such depth. Once something is illuminated, the power is taken away.

My notes are also filled with war imagery: born into a war zone, secrets are the weapon of the enemy, prison, truth is freedom, must be prepared for battle and evil or walk right into it, “most people don’t even realize they are at war, must hide pain because to be vulnerable in war means death, at birth we are released into captivity.”

So this is what I was armed with (more war imagery!) when I embarked on my trip to the Outer Banks and faced a daunting, blank Word document.

After I got settled with my dog, Captain, in my new Southern Shores home, I bought a poster board, which I divided into enough blocks for each day of the six months I would be spending there. In each box, I listed the date, the number of hours I worked on the book that day, and the number of words I wrote. I set weekly goals, and even though I no longer have that poster board, my memory tells me I did a pretty good job reaching those goals each week. 

I knew how I wanted the book to end, so I began with that. And I quickly realized that I wanted the ending to frame the entire book, so I split it up into the Prologue and the Epilogue. But I had no idea what would happen to get me to that ending. 

Sometimes I wrote at home, but more often than not, I set up in a coffee shop. There was one Starbucks in town, and I did my best to avoid going there although it was on my rotation. I mostly wanted to support the smaller cafes as much as possible. So I’d spend days at places like the Front Porch Cafe in Kitty Hawk. Morning View Coffee House in Nags Head, or Wave Riders in Nags Head. My favorite place to write, however, was Duck’s Cottage Coffee and Books in Duck.

Thanks to computers, I created more “drafts” than I could count. In a previous life, when we were all forced to write out essays on paper or on a typewriter, we all understood what a “draft” was. You would basically write the whole thing in what would be called the first draft. Then you would read it over and make changes, giving you a second draft. This would continue until you had a final draft. The excruciating process of having to retype the entire thing ensured a very limited number of drafts!

But with in the computer age, it is really difficult to figure out where one draft ends and another begins. With the computer, I am writing, reorganizing, and editing all at the same time. And each time I would save the document, it would overwrite the version that came before, blurring the idea of drafts. But periodically, I would change the name of the file so that I could save a new document. I usually would do this if I made some changes I wasn’t necessarily sure about and therefore wanted to keep a copy of the draft before those changes or if I moved major sections around. Or changed the point of view. Other times I would save the file under a different name in order to preserve the old-school idea of drafts. As a result, I have literally well over a hundred “drafts” of Cassandra’s Daughter.

I pulled up the oldest of these drafts, and it looks like the first thing I wrote was the story of Cora, who at the time was named Ruth. It is riddled with interruptions highlighted in yellow that look like this: 

I would write, “When her father died…”  and then highlight, How did he die? Does it matter? Or “The thought of asking was more frightening than her memory of …” and What was the memory? 

Sometimes, I inserted notes highlighted in purple. For example, Later show how the daughter repeats this pattern. Or Research the town of Queenstown Ireland in early 1900s.

In the early drafts, word choices aren’t precise. Many sentences include a variety of word choices to be narrowed down to one later, such as “calmness/stability/reserve.”

And in other places, sentences are simply interrupted with “????” I would put this when I had no idea what I wanted to do with this part, but I didn’t want to stop the flow. I couldn’t be bothered with that figuring out this section at this stage.

This first draft is 12,350 words. For some perspective, the final draft is just under 100,000 words.

At this point, I had enough written that I needed to start making some decisions, such as whether the story should be told in chronological order or not. My first thought on this was that I wanted to jump around from generation to generation, purposely leaving the chronology somewhat difficult to follow. I actually often like books written like this, especially when it all comes together so nicely in the end. But I constantly struggled with making this work despite a stubborn insistence that this was the structure I want.

This also meant that periodically I would pull out each section that focused on a particular character and put them all in a separate document in order to make sure that each woman had a cohesive character arc if viewed alone.

Obvious to anyone who has read the book, I finally gave up on this strategy and presented the story in chronological order. But I was stubborn. I held on to that organization for years. In the end, nope, I just couldn’t make it work.

Another difficult decision I faced was regarding point of view. Should the story be told in first person point of view, where the narrator tells the story from the character’s point of view, using the pronouns I and me? Or should the story be told in third person, using he, she, they? I wrote and rewrote entire sections trying to determine which would be more effective. I thought maybe the three main characters (the grandmother Cora, the mother Leah, and the daughter Cassandra) could each tell their own stories in first person. But I was pretty certain that I didn’t want Cassandra to tell her story in first person. More on that later…

I should mention that these character names weren’t solidified for most of the writing process! They had many different names throughout the many drafts.

When thinking about POV, I also thought maybe one possibility would be that I could divide the book into three sections, where each main character had her own section devoted to telling her story, whether in first person or third. 

I suppose this whole process might sound miserable, but I loved it. It was like completing a puzzle. Where should this piece of the puzzle/chapter go? Does it flow better, fit better here? Or there? Which way completes the picture? And just like a real puzzle, something clicks right into place when a chapter or a scene is exactly where it should be.

More about character development in the next installment…

Just released!

Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino

Available on Amazon


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