The Many Permutations of Story

Every now and then, I like to put down my current fantastical read and read author interviews. Sometimes reading the words of successful authors and learning about their process helps me to connect with my creative process and in doing so helps to inspire me. As I’ve been struggling a lot in that department, I thought I’d go back to an interview I read for my MFA.

In an interview recorded in Novel Ideas : Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process, Michael Chabon’s talks about the many iterations some of his characters go through when he writes. Specifically, he talks about how some characters “go through endless permutations and revisions, turning from wicked to kind to whimsical to mad and back again” (Denman 122).

I can relate to this concept of endless character creation and story creation. During my first draft of Prince of Dreams, I drafted it in a month, NANOWRIMO style. It was sloppy, it was messy, it was me telling the story to myself.

It would also eventually get scrapped entirely along with several other iterations of it until I finally landed at the one that is currently being represented (but that is a story for another day, today we’re talking character).

During each draft there were several characters that kept getting rewritten and reimagined. I felt like a weirdo for not knowing who my characters were. I didn’t talk about it either. I didn’t share with the world that I was having trouble pinning down these people in my head, that they were constantly evolving and shifting. That at times the plot was contriving them and then at times they were taking over the story.

The Many Permutations of Story (2)
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I felt I was the only person until I read Chabon’s interview. See my favorite snippet below:

How do your character most often show themselves to you in the beginning stages of writing a novel? How do they clarify and begin to shape the action of it?

“It depends. Some characters come together, from their aches and the sources of those aches down to their smallest particulars of speech and dress, very quickly and effortlessly. And once I have a good sense of them, I can sort of sit back and let them do what they do. Other characters go through endless permutations and revisions, turning from wicked to kind to whimsical to mad and back again, and I’ll struggle from draft to draft to draft to get to the heart of the character and to what his or her function in the book must be. In this latter case, sometimes the problem character will just one day abruptly pop into place, and I’ll say, “Oh, of course!” And sometimes he or she never comes together, and I just have to cut him or her out” (Denman 122).

Chabon puts it in a way that I just can’t and won’t bother trying to. He’s a master of expression and I’m just a word vomiter.

But it wasn’t just the characters that had been changing and evolving, it was the story itself. Somewhere between drafts 20 and 30, of course if you were to ask my husband he’d say somewhere closer to the 40th iteration… I realized that my book was nothing like that first draft anymore.

I was both relieved and horrified. Relieved because thank goodness it was different, after 40 drafts, you want something to be different, right? But a bit horrified too, if I’m being honest, because it was so different from what I had initially conceptualized for my story.

Or was it different?

After looking over the last iteration of the book, the final version where all the characters had finally clicked and the story had popped into place, I compared it to that first draft. Writing style and growth aside, the theme and message of draft one and draft 40 (or whatever the represented version ended up being) were similar which I think is important. But, ultimately, the stories had diverged so much from each other and had become vastly different from each other. At the end of the day, I realized that was ok.

After looking through all the many drafts, all those permutations of the story, all the permutations of the characters too, all the notes and the character sketches, all the outlines for the drafts, and the re-outlines, I saw one consistent theme. An effort toward progress. A drive toward forward motion.

Chabon talks about his process in Novel Ideas as well, and his process is different than mine, which I love and respect and adore about this thing that we writers do. 

Chabon says about finishing a book:

“It’s funny. When I finished the book, I felt that I had really wandered very far from my original ideas about what kind of book it would be. That I had made all kinds of surprising discoveries and decision along the way that I never could have foreseen. And then I came across a brief note I had written to myself, four and a half years earlier, as I prepared to start to work. In this note I laid out my intention for the book and for what I thought it would be like, what kind of territory it would cover. And it was remarkably like the final draft! I was amazed” (Denman 122).

While I didn’t look back at my final draft and my notes and share Chabon’s experience. I did feel that all that effort and time, all those permutations of character and story had been leading me through a personal journey of writing the story I’d been trying to write all along. I know how that sounds. It sounds whimsical. Its sounds like I have my head in the clouds. It sounds like I shouldn’t be writing a blog about writing. And, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t. But that’s how I felt at the end of writing Prince of Dreams.

It felt like I’d written the book of my dreams. The one I wish I had when I realized I was a brown girl in a white world. The one I wish I had when I was in high school and being bullied. The one I wanted to read in college when I was battling PTSD and fighting suicide ideation. The one I wish I had when I moved to a polarized city and never felt more singled out for the color or my skin than I ever had before in my life.

I think there are some books that take years to process and years to write, because it takes years for the writer to heal and to figure out how to get the words out of themselves. Prince of Dreams was that book for me.

Writing Prince of Dreams also taught me something else. I’m an even faster trash-er. I’d write and then I’d trash. I’d write and then I’d trash. This served me and helped me grow in ways that switching to writing a different book may have also taught me, but I was too stubborn to concede.

With each draft, the true story would reveal itself more and more. Each iteration, each scrapped manuscript, each blank page starting from scratch all over again, took me closer and closer to writing the story that I had dreamed of writing from day 1.

When I was finally done with it, I cried. Because it was the story that I had been trying to write all along, with the characters that I’d been trying to do justice.

Right now, I’m trying to find the words for book 2 of this series. I’m trying to find a process that’s not quite so… I don’t know, destructive. 

All I know is that there is no right or wrong way to write. My way is not the right way. The way I wrote book 1 won’t necessarily be the right way for book 2. Or it might be but that method might not serve me for book 3.

I know every writer is going to be different. That is what I do know. I know that with certainty. If there is anything to know about writing. That is something to know with accuracy.

That and this one mandate: That we get down to the nitty-gritty and do the thing that we say we’re doing, which is to write.

Which what I’m going to go and get done.

Keep Reading and Keep Writing,

Nicolette Elzie

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Works Cited

Denman, Margaret-Love and Barbara Shoup. Novel Ideas : Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process. vol. 2nd ed, University of Georgia Press, 2009.

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