As the Civil War winds violently down, fears of the South’s uncertain future fuse with its unraveling traditions. Against the backdrop of this post-apocalyptic landscape, so littered with corpses and mythology
and desperation, two women, stranded and alone
in the Louisiana bayou, fight to survive.
I get asked a lot about how I went about writing my first published novel, Hagridden. But recently, an Ohio writer, Ray Pantle, asked me something more specific: whether figuring out how to write Hagridden taught me anything general about how to write any novel.
Writers like to say that you have to learn from scratch how to write each book, which is true. But while Hagridden is my first published novel, it's not my first attempt at a novel, and I learned plenty from those failures that helped me write Hagridden, just as I learned things from Hagridden that are helping me write my next novel.
One of the first things I figured out for Hagridden was actually a holdover from the previous two novels I’d attempted: how to organize my writing time. When I wrote those previous books, I was in college, writing under the guidance of professors, and I kept on task because I knew people would be hounding me for the work.
With Hagridden, I was on my own, and I had to learn how to discipline myself -- not an easy lesson for someone as undisciplined as I am.
Fortunately, at that time my only job was writing, so I was able to schedule my whole day around the book -- a luxury I'd never had before -- and I learned to treat writing as my job. Those first few weeks I even put on a tie in the morning before I sat at my desk.
That seriousness and that daily schedule became more important when I decided to write Hagridden as my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. Those thirty days sound like plenty, especially writing full-time, but I had a lot of story to tell. And I knew that if I was going to get through that novel as quickly as I needed to, I'd need to know where I was going with the story.
So I made an outline.
This is something I rarely do and dislike in principle -- to me, outlines feel so limiting, so prescriptive. But I knew that, without the guidance (and goading) of professors, I'd need something to keep me on task, which is why I opted for the outline.
It helped that in those few months before drafting Hagridden, I had been writing a lot of short fiction, cranking out new stories rapidly, and I'd learned from that process how to let go of expectations -- how to ignore what I thought "ought" to happen in a story or how it “ought” to look on the page.
The plot part of that freedom was easy enough: Tom Franklin once told me that sometimes you need to write the story you want to read most and Hagridden was a novel I very much wanted to read. So I learned to treat myself as my own first reader and just enjoy the story as it came, to let the novel reveal itself to me regardless of deadlines or outlines or any other lines.
The style of the prose, though, was much harder to let go of.
I always enter a story knowing how I wish it would sound -- I love language, yearn for beautiful rhythms and phrases that sound like incantations--but it almost never comes out that way, or if it does it’s not a style I can sustain over long bouts of writing. Which is frustrating, and it tends to lock me up and prevent me from writing until the “right” words come.
What the frenzied first draft of Hagridden taught me was that, as much as I still strove for that, I couldn’t let it get in the way of the writing. Eventually, I allowed myself to use just any old words, writing all manner of boring sentences, just to get the plot on paper. I trusted myself enough to know that I could always work with the language in revisions.
These are the things I find myself working hardest to remember as I write my current novel: to take the work as seriously as a job; to commit to the writing in that way; to have a general plan for the story up front, so I know where I’m going (if not how to get there); and then write to enjoy the story, and know that the language will come in the revisions. And ultimately, to trust the process, and just write.
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About the Author
Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of Hagridden, a Civil War novel from Columbus Press, and Box Cutters, a fiction chapbook from sunnyoutside press. Samuel works for Jersey Devil Press and his short fiction has been published in Ampersand Review, Bartleby Snopes, Eunoia Review, Fiction Circus,Fried Chicken and Coffee, Prick of the Spindle, Red Fez, WhiskeyPaper, and others. He was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2010 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom competitions; his novella also was a semi-finalist in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom competition. He was a finalist for the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. He is the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. Samuel lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and their two cats, Ibsen and Brontë. Find out more at his website snoekbrown.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @SnoekBrown.