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By Guide and By Feel

Every story seems to unfold according to its own logic, its own rules, and its own design. While working on my latest fiction project, I’ve realized that it hardly matters if I’ve put a novel together before—the process is different this time. The story is teaching me how to tell it as I go.

My first novel popped up from a dream like a beribboned gift—equipped with a title, characters, a primary plot, a beginning and an ending. Knowing where the story was going helped guide me through the process—all I had to do was keep writing the scenes that I knew needed to exist. They accumulated, not always in order, but all of them over time, and bit by bit. For the order and organization of these scenes, I didn’t have a guide. I had to go by feel. I’ve said before it was like watching an intricate ship emerge from the water—parts that seemed separate at first were revealed to be connected, a part of the greater whole.

For this latest fiction project, I had no plot in mind when I started. Instead, the two main characters showed up first, arriving with distinct voices and (mostly) formed personalities. Beyond the roughest idea, I didn’t know what these characters would do or where the story would take them, but I knew their voices and I knew how they wanted to talk to each other. When I needed to write a new chapter, their voices beckoned, guiding me in. Many chapters later, they guide me still. All I have to do is put those two into a scene together and the dialog almost seems to write itself. I have pages and pages of them conversing—and they never fail to delight me, to make me think, or to make me laugh. Sounds a little too easy…it isn’t. My characters may show me the way in, but the rest—world-building, plot construction—is up to me.

If I had the characters and a ready plot, too, like I did before, maybe this would be like walking through one of those meditative, unicursal labyrinths: one way through and just follow your feet to the end. Without both elements, I find myself in the multicursal labyrinth—the maze. From an aerial view the maze makes sense, the solution is easy to spot, but from inside the maze it’s a different story, and it’s best to prepare for a challenge. While feeling my way through this latest novel, I’ve had some missteps, even reached a dead end and had to double back, start again.

Maybe, at times, a puzzle is best. Good stories need struggle. They need turmoil and huffing and puffing. They need risk and failure. Second chances and second tries. Maybe the storyteller also needs some of these things to keep writing, to stay intrigued. I have plenty of those easy dialog scenes piled up and ready to go, but my favorite parts of my new novel might be the puzzle-box chapters, the ones that kept me up past my bedtime and asserted their conundra into my dreams. Both ways, by guide and by feel, are gifts of the process. The unicursal labyrinth entices, and the maze (after some work) rewards.

Writing takes courage. It’s an adventure, a quest of sorts, with helpers and obstacles. Writers may look like they’re doing very little while sitting in a café, or camped at their desk, hardly moving for blocks of time. But really, they’re creating something out of nothing, inventing worlds from scratch. Fans used to throw posies or silk hankies at their champions as they faced down danger. Maybe instead, we can just check on each other now and then—see if anyone needs a Chai or something. Hydration is easy to forget when you’re in the maze.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author. 

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