Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Like many authors, I’m often asked “how” I write a novel. Do I start with an idea? Do I know the ending before I begin? Do I outline?

Now that I’ve just finished my third novel, I recognize what I suspected when I was writing my second, SO HAPPY TOGETHER, and what I was too new to realize when I’d finished my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON.

Yes, I do have my own distinct process; one that might be considered different, a bit unorthodox, but I also suspect that a lot of other authors can say the same thing. Because in the end, as you type those two beautiful words THE END, you realize there’s something magical about writing a novel and for everyone it’s a different experience.

When I began my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, way back in 1999, I had no idea really what I was doing. After more than a decade of not writing at all (I’d left a freelance writing career for a more lucrative one in real estate), a longing to write again began to consume me. My kids were going off to college, I was a bit burned out, and I missed doing something creative. Since I’d been away from writing for so long, I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s Degree and jump start my way back. At the time I knew I really wanted to write fiction, but I figured, how many people can make a living at that?

In the very first class I took I was assigned to write a short story. In my real estate job I specialized in helping corporate families with their moves, so I invented a corporate wife named Joanna Harrison. In that short story, I had her walk away from her empty, rootless life, now that the kids were gone and her husband was still never home. Where was she going? I decided she was going to the place I would go if I were running away: my favorite beach in the world, Pawleys Island, SC. What happened when she got there? She found a position as a caretaker for a woman named Grace, and began to experiment with starting a new life. Not much happened, really, but I threw in a hurricane for a dramatic ending. It was just 25 pages.

Two years later, when it was time to write my thesis for graduation, I decided to take Joanna and see what I could do with her. The requirement was 120 pages, and I thought I’d have myself half a novel by the end of that semester.

What happened during those weeks of writing those 120 pages was the beginning of the magic for me. When Joanna moved in witthe older woman, Grace, I decided to write as Grace, and see the world through her point of view. Grace had also done something drastic in coming to Pawleys Island and was harboring a big secret. Once I was inside Grace’s head, I loved her! At 75 years-old, she had wisdom and guts, but also a cranky side to her. So Grace got her own story, told through her own Point of View, along with Joanna’s. I felt a richness enter the work.

On I wrote.

One day, while writing a scene where Joanna is arguing with her husband, Paul, a corporate warrior I could identify with because of my sales career, I decided to approach the scene from his Point-Of-View, to see if I could breathe more tension into it and make him more real. It was an experiment, really. When I was done, I hooted out loud. He was perfectly flawed-- arrogant, selfish, yet with a sensitive side that had long been buried. I loved Paul with all of his imperfections! I decided to give him his own storyline, as well, showing how he reacts to his wife leaving, and then losing his job, the thing that defined him. What I thought made this really special was that I was going to show both sides of the marriage.

With these three characters on three somewhat parallel journeys, I felt my novel really coming to life. Sixteen weeks after starting, I turned in those 120 pages and graduated. I have to admit, I had no idea what would happen next for Joanna, Paul and Grace. But when my fellow thesis students kept saying You have to finish this at graduation, I thought Why not?

And so I spent the next 2 years figuring out how to write the rest of the novel, getting up at 5 am each morning before my work day began, writing nights and weekends, and even taking my laptop on two more family vacations to Pawleys Island, thrilled to be able to immerse myself in the setting even more. We’ve now been going to Pawleys Island for more than 20 years and the decision to use that setting was a bit selfish—it allowed me to be there in my mind every time I wrote.

I didn’t always know what was happening in the next chapter, so I did a lot of walking to let my mind relax, with a little notebook (now I carry a recorder) and something else magical happened-- the characters started talking in my head. Details and plot ideas came out of the air. And I’d go home and write furiously. Scenes became chapters, and the book began to grow.

When I was about three-quarters through my first draft, I had no idea how I was going to end it. I had a thought, something that seemed to be the right thing for Joanna, but still, I wasn’t sure. So I went back to the beginning and wrote another draft, cleaning things up, beefing up the characters’ personalities, and again getting to the same point and…starting over.

It wasn’t until the third draft that I wrote my ending. It came to me while I was walking, how it could unfold perfectly, and I went home and wrote 50 pages without coming up for air over the course of 3 days.

When I wrote THE END, I had…500 pages! Those first 120 of my thesis turned out to be a drop in the literary bucket. But then I cut and polished and trimmed it down to about 400. And then it took me 5 years and self-publishing it myself to finally land my contract with Hyperion.

When I wrote SO HAPPY TOGETHER, I had just 14 months to complete it. I didn’t have the luxury of time. But I found the same process unfolding, and wrote about 4 drafts before writing THE END.

I broke the record with my new novel (which is in my agent’s hands so I can’t say a word yet!) writing 6 drafts before finishing and writing THE END!

Why do I continue to do this? Because I like it to fall into place “organically.” I don’t want to push my characters to a certain place. Because for me it’s always about character. That is where I start.

When I start my fourth novel, very soon, there will be some comfort in the routine I’ve established. It won’t matter if I’m not sure about my ending, nor that my characters won’t really come to life for me for a few drafts. The magic will still be there, just waiting to happen. And when I write THE END, once again, I will pinch myself, still unable to believe that this is my job! This is my life!

Because I refused to give up!

Maryann McFadden lives in New Jersey but wishes she lived in South Carolina. She continues to write books set at the ocean, so she can vicariously be there while she writes.

You can visit her at http://www.maryannmcfadden.com/  where she'll be hosting a Book Club Giveaway to celebrate the paperback release of SO HAPPY TOGETHER on June 15 (an Indie Next Pick). THE RICHEST SEASON is also out in paperback now, and also an Indie Next Pick!


Laura Marcella said...

Loved this post! I must always trust the process, even if I'm sure where it's going. Trust the process and never give up! Thanks for the reminder, Maryann!

Shelby said...

really good post.. real raw long time journey of passion to the page.. not easy and quick, but determined.

love it.