Sometimes life doles out a departure from the norm. The summer of 2017 was that for me, in more ways than one, and the Novel Starter Composition Book was the result. My father was ill. He'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and because of a pain pump in his back that masked the symptoms, it was quite advanced by the time it was discovered. On top of that, he'd fallen and broken a hip. After a stay in a physical therapy rehab, he came home, but unable to meet his own daily needs, he had a caretaker during the week, and on the weekends my sister and I took turns staying with him. He fell again while at home, and his health quickly deteriorated, and the weekends turned into 24-hour care.
During that dark time, I found I had to keep busy or lose my mind worrying about what was happening. So, I took my laptop with me, thinking I'd edit a WIP. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t concentrate on the process. From there I moved on to poetry. It’s supposed to be cathartic, right? After all, many an inspired verse comes from suffering and sorrow. But I couldn’t do it either. Determined to find something to focus on, I considered a recent conversation I’d had with a critique buddy about journals. Not journaling but the journals themselves. She shared some of her favorites and how she loved the different kinds on the market. Of course, I knew these were available, but I've always bought empty journals, just lined pages for writing on. Yet the more we talked about camping journals, prayer journals, weight loss journals, etc., etc., it set off some bells in my brain and left me with a bad case of the "What ifs?"
What if There was a Novel Writer's Journal?
Turns out, there was. But not one like I envisioned. Images of old-school, traditional composition books filled my mind. The kind found in almost every middle grade and high school locker across the country. I also thought about how many novels had been written in those composition books over the years. Then I rabbit-trailed into wondering how many more could be written if the composition book came with a set of instructions, a type of “directions” for the novice to learn how and where to start a first draft. It’s certainly something I would like to have had when I first started.
So, I bought a composition book (Pun totally intended but true nonetheless.) and set to making notes on what I thought might be needed in such a composition book. Back when I began learning the craft, the amount of information at times intimidated me. It brought to mind that question, How do you eat an elephant? I was left not knowing where to start. And I’ll be honest, I was an avid pantser who resisted outlining which may have been part of the problem. Side note: for me, this was a mistake, and I’m not out to convert pantsers to plotters now, but I wasted a lot of valuable time letting my muse run wild.
With my own experience in mind, I knew fledgling novelists in today’s information-saturated society, had to be overwhelmed by the glut of instructional materials out there. This led me to try to create something as simple as possible. A guidebook that would introduce an overview of how to write a first draft of a novel. And I wanted it in one of those ubiquitous composition books so the writer would have a place to practice the exercises.
Consequently, during those nights of sitting on my father’s sofa with him down the hall in his hospice bed, I wrote and rewrote my journey as a fiction writer, distilling the tips and tricks I’d learned down to 5 main lessons, with a 6th that tied everything together in the end. The workbook starts with the premise sentence(s) writing. Sorry, pantsers. It really is a necessary evil. Then there’s character development, setting, conflict, endings, and a big-picture outline. No information overload, but a taste of each one of these story elements.
Why the Novel Starter Composition Book?
A person can find an entire book written on the subject of any one of these lessons. If you’re writing genre fiction, there are tons of more in-depth resources out there. K.M. Weiland, Donald Maass, Larry Brooks, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, to name a few. So, I don’t pretend to be an expert who knows all about all, but I am confident a novice writer can grasp a simple structure for understanding a novel’s architecture, and hopefully find a springboard for diving into creativity.
My dad passed away that summer, and it’s taken me two years to come back around to the writing birthed then. The work, very much a departure from my norm, was a balm at that time. But I had to put it away for a while and let grief run its course. In the end, I discovered grief has a way of bringing one into the light, and I knew it was time to finish this project. Although I didn’t officially dedicate the Novel Starter Composition Book to anyone, I am dedicating this blog post to my father. I love and miss you, you old curmudgeon.