My most successful novel for young adults is Memory Boy, a draft of which I wrote in three weeks. That should have told me something. However, as a novelist I’m a slow learner; or more precisely, each novel is its own puzzle to solve, and it’s usually a mistake to hark back to the previous book when writing a new one. However, I’m trying just that with my new novel: re-visiting the approach I took to writing Memory Boy, to see if it will work again.
There are two very general approaches to writing a novel: work on it daily, stopping and starting to attend to real life, much as one goes about a job. The opposite tack is the Jack Kerouac method: full tilt, full focus, writing fast and hard and continuously, real life be damned. I know visual artists who absolutely require the latter method, but most novelists I know take the workman-like approach.
Memory Boy was written with modified Jack Kerouac approach. I tried to “write” (visualize) a good deal of MB inside my head before anything else. Once it began to seem real in my imagination, I made notes and set chapter headings in place. Soon I pretty much knew the whole arc of the novel (with most of my novels I know only half or even a third of the story before I write the first word.) My notes weren’t copious, such as I imagine a mystery writer might need, and of them the chapter headings were the most useful. Knowing all of–and only– what each chapter has to cover greatly speeds up the writing process. Then, with MB fully in my head, I holed up at a writing retreat for three weeks of isolation, and wrote. Just wrote. No distractions other than to surface for food and a breath of fresh air. The result was an organically whole narrative that, as I see now, has a tightness about it–an intensity, an urgency––that most of my YA novels do not have. They are each good in their own ways, but not as tight as MB. In short, I think the Kerouac method has much to say for itself as an artistic process. Can I duplicate it? Will it work again? I’ll find out this summer.