Like most writers, I have a love/hate relationship with this question.
On the one hand, I love that people remember, and care, that I’m writing a novel. On the other hand, I wish they would forget.
No, that’s not true. What I really wish for is the impossible ability to offer a satisfactory answer. Such a question, often posed in passing, requires more than a simple (socially appropriate and brief) response of “good” or “bad.” Both answers, if attempted, require elaboration.
So here I am, elaborating.
How the Novel’s Coming: Facts
Facts and stats first.
- This is my 3rd novel (the other 2 are buried safely where no one will ever see them, which is exactly where they belong).
- I began actively working on it in 2012, though the concept came years earlier.
- To date I have written just over 75,000 words of the rough draft, which I estimate to finish off somewhere around 120,000 words.
Now let me tell you why none of that matters.
How the Novel’s Coming: Reality
Challenge #1: Plot
I wrote my first two novels as a “pantser,” the writing world’s term for someone who takes an idea, a scene, or even just a line of dialogue and starts writing “by the seat of their pants.” It’s mostly improv, and it seems to work like gangbusters for Stephen King.
I am not a pantser. I learned that the hard way. So this time around, I decided to have a be a plotter.
I spent 4 months brainstorming and outlining before I wrote a sentence of actual narrative. Everything was going splendidly until I discovered what every panster will tell you with 100% certainty:
Characters have minds of their own.
About 6 chapters into my rough draft, I hit a wall. I couldn’t make my main character, who was coming across on the page far more analytical and driven than I’d planned, take the next step my outline was insisting she take. It just didn’t make sense for her.
Furthermore, one of my secondary characters was stealing the show. Did I have the wrong protagonist? How would things change if I switched point of view? What if my plot was really just a subplot?
I made adjustments, and then more adjustments, and finally had an entirely rewritten outline. No biggie, that happens. It’s why a rough draft is called a “discovery draft.” Writing is nothing if not a process of discovery.
Challenge #2: Setting
I pressed on, carving out precious hours during evenings and weekends, holing up in quiet libraries, or bedrooms with locked doors.
I wrote carefully, cautiously. I knew my plot had potential and my characters were developing, but I was intimidated by the setting. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I had chosen to set my story in Rwanda.
(I made this decision in 2010, before I’d even traveled there to adopt our youngest. Because I am nothing if not my own worst enemy.)
By the time I began writing, I’d spent two weeks in Rwanda (mostly in government buildings, thanks to adoption paperwork) and spent many hours reading about the nation’s culture, land, people, and history. I was far from an expert, but I wasn’t writing blind.
I had, however, made a decision. My story wouldn’t have anything to do with the 1994 Genocide. Every book I’d read about Rwanda involved the Genocide. Whenever Rwanda came up in conversation, the only thing people seemed to know was that “some awful tribal war happened there a while back, didn’t it?”
The Rwanda I had fallen in love with was a place of breathtaking beauty and peace. The people I’d met there radiated vibrant faith and inexplicable joy, even in hardship. After two weeks among them I left with a deep hunger to return, and a sense that this land I barely knew could be as much a home to me as the farm fields of Pennsylvania.
This was the Rwanda I would portray in my novel, not the Rwanda of 20 years ago.
Challenge #3: People Who Know Better
Thankfully, I have wise writer friends and mentors. One of them, Jeanette Windle, has authored several award-winning novels, all set abroad in countries that are both beautiful and plagued by conflict.
When Jeanette asked how I was going to handle the Genocide, I told her my plan to ignore it.
“Rwanda isn’t just your setting,” she told me. “It’s a character in your story. All characters have history that makes them who they are. You can’t write about Rwanda without writing about genocide.”
Her words terrified me, because I knew they were true. I couldn’t write about Rwanda without writing about genocide. Even if my story took place 20 years after the devastation, the scars had to affect my characters and my plot. It was inevitable.
I considered scrapping the entire project. Then I considered moving the whole setting for the story back to the safety of the States.
I couldn’t find peace with either prospect. Jeanette was right; Rwanda was one of my main characters. But who was I to write about Rwanda and her people? Wouldn’t it be arrogant for me, an American who has known only wealth, comfort, and safety, to attempt to capture the emotions and mindset of people who have lived through the horrors of genocide, poverty, and grief?
Challenge #4: Telling the Truth
After my conversation with Jeanette, I took 2 months off from writing and immersed myself in the Genocide.
With every book and documentary, I felt myself sinking deeper into a dark place. As academic knowledge began to connect with emotional understanding, I suffered nightmares and panic attacks. I asked hard questions about justice, hatred, and forgiveness. I felt responsible, and I felt wronged.
One day, I sat down and poured all of that knowledge and feeling into a scene for my novel. I wrote from the perspective of a Rwandan wife and mother, about the day the killing broke out in her village.
I cried as I wrote, and then cried more as I rewrote. I prayed over the words, desperate to make them honest, and wishing they were completely false.
Finally, I dared bring the scene to my writers’ critique group. We sat in a circle as someone read aloud. My heart pounded through the entire reading. I’d never felt so naked.
There was a long silence at the end. It was time for everyone to go around the circle, offering critique, but no one spoke.
Finally, a young woman slapped the pages down on her lap.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I just can’t understand why you would write something like this. There’s so much terrible stuff in the world already, why would you go and create more?”
Another member of the group explained that what I’d written about really happened, but the young woman stood her ground.
“This kind of thing really bothers me, and now I’ll never get it out of my mind. This is America, not Rwanda. What she wrote might be true, but if it is, I don’t want to know about it.”
It might be true, but she didn’t want to know about it.
That statement alone solidified my resolve to move forward.
Challenge #5: Fear
After years of planning and writing a story that was supposed to have little to do with Rwanda, and nothing to do with the Genocide, I am now asking myself what story I would be telling if not for the fear holding me back.
Precious few have seen what I’ve written, but their vision for my novel seems to exceed my own. They have me asking questions about plot vs. calling, and considering avenues that are far beyond my writing ability at this point.
Further complicating the issue is the multidimensional understanding I’m slowly gaining through research. Rwanda’s present political state is far murkier than I once thought, and the conflict behind the 1994 Genocide far from eradicated. News reports tell us there is peace, reconciliation, and economic growth, which there is. But there is also brokenness, tension, and resentment. I can’t ignore that, but as a writer I haven’t yet decided what to do with it.
In short, I’m convinced that the story I want to write is too big for me. Thankfully God’s grace is bigger still, because I’m not giving up.
So if you ask me how my novel’s going, and my response is, “It’s still going,” I trust you’ll understand how very much that means.