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Susan Swan: My Novel-Writing Secrets

06/08/2013 08:38 EDT | Updated 08/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Susan Swan will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. So far, we have heard from Ania Szado, Evan Munday, Mathew Henderson, and Martha Schabas. Today, we feature Susan's contribution. And check back in next week for Sarah Elton's take.

OK, I'm going to share some of my novel writing secrets with you. I've promised the Huffington Post I would. So here are three fool-proof ways to face the blank page if you are a novelist, and believe me, my methods will work for other types of writing too, but you need to follow my instructions carefully:

First, pull out a large piece of drafting paper. You're going to use it as a map of your novel, or your non-fiction book, or your article or your essay. If you're a novelist, write down the names of your four main characters and their three favourite words. Write down any images that come to mind, images that may convey something your characters do or who they are. Next write down what you think your story is about -- obsessive love, fraud, emotional loss. (It doesn't matter if you guess wrong. Writing is rewriting, as a wise writer once said, and you will have lots of chances to revise your thinking here.) Then start listing the scenes you see in your mind's eye. Now go to one of the scenes that seems most interesting to you, and write down where it is and what happens. I call this stage of facing the blank page "courting a novel."

If you are writing an essay, write down your three most important points on the drafting paper. Write down what you think your main point, or thesis statement, is (even if you aren't sure what it is yet.) Then start listing specific examples that prove each of your three points on the paper. The three points will support your thesis, and the more specific your evidence is, the more convincing it will be. You will be amazed at how much more easily your ideas will coalesce if you see them visually. Virginia Woolf once compared this process to fishing. You throw a line in the river and wait to see what comes. And there is a certain patience involved in storytelling or making an argument. I call it trusting the process.

Second, you need to write the scene from the novel that interests you. It may be your opening. It may be your ending, or it may be a scene somewhere in the middle. It doesn't matter where you start a novel because all the scenes and passages can be re-organized into the right sequence later. Many novices believe writers write a novel from A to Z. Not true. John Irving writes his ending first, and he says he hears the rest of his novel as a kind of music moving towards his final sentence. That's how John Irving does it. But all writers have their own process, and if you're like me, you go to the scenes that spark with the most heat or obsessive energy, and then you write those scenes first.

Why? Because those scenes are the most fun to write, and they're also likely to be the key scenes in your story. There is nothing wrong with going straight to the heart of things. It will save you time with your essay because you will need to find your thesis statement, which could be something like, "Rob Ford is the most controversial mayor Torontonians have ever elected." (Now there's an argument that won't be hard to prove!) Often the hardest part of writing an essay is figuring out just what that statement is. And often one of your three main points is your thesis.

Lastly, if you are still daunted by the blank page, dictate your most interesting scene into a tape recorder. You can do the same thing with your three main points. Using a tape recorder will feel shamefully easy at first, as if you are playing hokey and not sweating enough from your labours. Ignore pangs of guilt or self-consciousness. The beauty of the tape recorder is that it skips over the inner critic and lets you blurt out what you're interested in writing. Yes, you will need the inner critic later when you are organizing what you have written. But you don't want he or she showing up too early. It's like inviting the food critic to a feast when you are still chopping onions.

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Susan Swan's new novel The Western Light was recently nominated as one of the top ten 2012 fiction and nonfiction books by the Ontario Library Association.

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