Lenore Gay is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Masters in Sociology, as well as in Rehabilitation Counseling. She has worked in several agencies, psychiatric hospitals and for ten years she maintained a private practice. She was on the faculty of the Rehabilitation Counseling Department of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Virginia Center of the Creative Arts (VCCA) has awarded her two writing fellowships. Her poems and short stories have appeared in several journals. Her essay “Mistresses of Magic” was published in the anthology IN PRAISE OF OUR TEACHERS (Beacon Press). “The Hobo” won first place in Style Weekly’s annual fiction contest. She is a volunteer reader at Blackbird, An Online Journal for Literature & The Arts.
Connect with Lenore H. Gay
Life in Other Worlds
A fiction writer joins the world they create. Occasionally a friend has suggested an idea for a novel. They tell me their idea and sketch out the plot. So far, my response has been no. The suggested story didn’t lure me into spending hours and hours in their particular world. In Laura Miller’s interview with Donna Tartt (Salon, 2013), the writer stated: “The fun thing about writing a book is that it really is a different life.” Tartt elaborated. saying she wished to live someone else’s life. Exactly.
Familiar with short story writing, what I knew about novels came from reading a lot of them. While laboring, it took time to grasp the novel’s nature. It was not a long short story. A novel had a terrifying amount of room – if a short story was a cottage, a novel was a mansion, a castle. How to start? The time-honored advice told me I must write an outline before beginning the book. An outline didn’t work. Instead, I saw images. Writers start their work in various ways- a setting, a character, active or static images, or with an idea they can’t shake.
A recurring image aroused my curiosity. I picked up paper and pencil and followed the image. When the image opened, it revealed a picture. Sometimes the image constructed a setting, sometimes it shaped a character’s physical being. Often a landscape appeared. An unknown person trudged through dunes wearing the wrong shoes, walked into a desert with nothing but a sketchbook, or rode a sled over snow and ice. The scene enlarged, sled dogs broke loose and ran away, aspen leaves twittered so loud the character felt haunted, sun radiated off the desert sand and burned up the sketch book. The character’s lungs struggled, his chest burned with effort. His body shone with sweat. Close to death.
“My first attempt at novel writing began in a ridiculous way.”
My first attempt at novel writing began in a ridiculous way. A naïve novelist, I proceeded to invent a culture, a cosmology, a landscape, new names for characters and new animal breeds. To stay oriented in this new world, I developed a glossary of terms and drew clunky maps. The maps helped me visualize where the characters went on their journeys. One of my many early mistakes was dedicating the first three pages to setting the opening scene. Feedback from other writers warned me against this strategy. Modern writers no longer take two or three pages to introduce their book.
When I wasn’t at the computer, I scratched down phrases on slips of paper. The next morning I’d walk around the house gathering them into a pile. I put them by the computer. The jottings often triggered the next day’s work. The writing moved at a glacial pace, yet I stayed happy. Grateful for long stretches of time, every morning the writing hours stretched out like an ocean. Most days I wrote eight, or more, hours.
Since writing this first manuscript, I’ve completed three novels and a novella. The craft is better. The first manuscript is languishing, flawed, yet with promise. I’ll re-enter that world someday. The world building turned out to be the most successful part of the work. The characters aren’t quite dead on the page, but they’re limp, sickly. When I have time, I’ll nurse them to health.