Disclaimer: I use “you” in this post a lot because it just came out that way. I hope it’s clear that I’m really talking about my own experiences.
This is a more technical post than the others in this series, more about the nuts and bolts of writing itself. (The way I phrased that is funny to me because of what Magic Bird Book is, but more on that another time.)
The Idea, as bestowed by the aforementioned Book Fairies, is something like a block of marble. A big, solid thing, with interesting veins of plot running through it, but it’s unwieldy, heavy, with sharp corners. Somewhere in there is a polished, refined story, and it’s your job to find it.
But the work doesn’t end there. You chip away at the stone, discarding what shouldn’t be there, and eventually you wind up with a shape. This isn’t the book. This is the outline. When you “pants” a book (as I did with CODA), the sculpture is a vague impression, obvious only to you what it’s supposed to be. When you plot one out down to the last detail, (as I eventually had to do with #magicbirdbook) it’s clear and crisp.
Now, you paint a picture of the sculpture, changing the details you didn’t get right. The final work bears a resemblance (probably) to what you chipped from the block of stone, but it’s not a photograph, more of an impressionist rendition. The story is there, more or less as it’s always been, but you took some liberties when inspiration hit and deviated from the original shape.
Sometime during the writing of MBB, a realization struck that there’s more of a connection between all the technical aspects of a novel than I’d ever really noticed before. Look at any writing resource online, and there will be talk about finding the right narrative voice, the right tense, etc. Arguments for and against third or first (and almost always against second), for and against past and present. Which ones you use will depend on a lot of factors: personal style and preference, the genre and target age group, what “feels” right for the book, and probably others.
The “news to me” part came when I thought about how I’d written CODA (first person, present tense) and MBB (third, past) and that the latter was, as I’ve said, more difficult. Not because I find third more difficult–if anything, I’ve written more in third person than I have in first, and in some ways I prefer it. But making that choice changes how you look at the block of marble and whether you chip it into a vague shape or a precise one. Being embedded in a character’s head (first person) allows you to let the story unfold as the character sees it, so it’s okay to dive in with just a rough idea of where you’re going. Really, in CODA, I just followed Anthem around and wrote down what happened. Occasionally I nudged him in the direction I needed him to go, but more than once he insisted on taking turns I objected to but which turned out to be better for the story. I think–and I accept I might be wrong here–it might be easier to pants a novel that way, at least for me. Being more removed from your characters (third person) means you have to make more of the story decisions. I always had to be more aware of what was going on across the room–or across the city–in MBB, even if its main character was oblivious. That gave me more balls to juggle, more decisions to make, less reliance on my characters to make them for me.
Of course, now, I’ll say the same thing other resources say: there are pros and cons to each way of doing it. I’m pretty sure the book I begin in November will be different still, and Lessons from Imp might happen at some point. (Maybe not.) Third person was absolutely the right choice for MBB, but it meant taking a breath and doing something scary–trusting myself as much as I trust my characters to make the right decisions. (For the plot, anyway. For themselves, they make the wrong decisions all the time.) I started out with the block of marble, and chipped it into an approximate shape because that worked before. It didn’t work this time because of the voice I chose, and only started to when I went back and polished the outline-sculpture into something more exact.
So, this lesson was to trust myself as a storyteller to find the story itself. And to follow that Neil Gaiman commandment: Make good art.