Friday, October 21, 2011

Jessica McCann talks about writing a jigsaw novel

Jessica McCann is the author of the award-winning novel, All Different Kinds of Free. Inspired by a true story, the novel follows Margaret Morgan, kidnapped in 1837 along with her  free children and sold into slavery. And on a personal note, Jessica is one of the coolest, warmest writers on the planet. I'm thrilled to have her here on my blog. And you can follow her on twitter and facebook at Twitter: @JMcCannWriter
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Thank you, Jessica. 

Writing a Jigsaw Novel

by Jessica McCann

As a kid, I used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles with my mom. She taught me to put together all the edge pieces first, to create the outline, and then fill in the middle. In school, that seemed to be the conventional wisdom from my writing teachers, too. Start with an outline, then fill in the details. For better or for worse, I’ve never been very good at following conventional wisdom.

When doing jigsaws, I would try to work the edges first. I really would. But then, what’s this here? Could it be part of an elbow? Maybe it’s an ear. And what about this piece? It has the same peachy hue, maybe it goes with this one. Ah ha! Little by little, section by scattered section, the big picture would eventually come together. Inevitably, the final piece to snap into place would be some flat-edged rascal that seemed to be lost until the very end.

My writing generally takes shape the same way. Even for the shortest magazine article, I struggle with sticking to an outline. A quote jumps out at me. An anecdote begs to be fleshed out. A statistic yearns to be researched. Then all the pieces get shifted and rearranged again and again, until the big picture finally materializes. The opening paragraphs are usually the last thing I write.

Multiply that by about a hundred, and you have a pretty good idea of how I wrote my first novel -- little by little, scene by scattered scene, until the last plot point finally snapped into place.
ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE was inspired by actual events. It tells the story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s America whose perfect life was shattered when she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. It took me a good five years to figure out all the plot points, to write and assemble all the scenes and chapters of the book. And the first scene I wrote, the one I thought would be the opening scene, ended up somewhere in the middle.

For a long time, the realization that this is my writing process was daunting as hell. Oh, it's fine for a 1,500-word article that takes a few weeks to complete. But apply it to novel writing, and you're looking at years of writing and revision for every book. Finally, I came to accept that writing a novel (and doing it well) simply takes as long as it takes.

Freelance writer and memoir author Jessica Handler also thinks it's OK write out of order. In fact, she encourages it.

"Just because your story follows a timeline doesn't mean you have to write it linearly," she said in her article "Writing without a Map" (The Writer magazine, May 2011). "If you're inspired to write a scene other than the one that comes next in your manuscript, go for it. You can put the story in the right order later."

You can put the story in the right order later.

Handler’s advice is comforting as I hammer away at my second novel. My outline is sketchy, at best. I have about two dozen scenes and vignettes written, which are random and completely unrelated. But that’s OK. I know now the big picture is there somewhere, waiting to reveal itself. And as I shift and re-arrange all the sections, I know that final flat-edged piece is just waiting to be snapped into place.



Cynthia Robertson said...

Wonderful description of your process, Jessica. Thanks so much for pointing me over here. I love the many ways different writers approach novel writing. One brilliant writer in my workshop uses exactly the same method as you-a piece here and a peice there...until the whole thing jells. Fascinating!!

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Fabulous article, Jessica - and precisely how things are happening for me now. Funny thing is I never liked jigsaw puzzles, but my fiction is, indeed, a carbon copy of the process. Thanks, Caroline, for the great interview. I can attest that Jessica's jigsaw approach worked. I loved All Different Kinds of Free!

Girl Parker said...

Great puzzle analogy! And it makes me feel much better about the shenanigans I just allowed in my WIP. Thanks for such an interesting interview, Jessica and Caroline.

Michelle Fayard said...

Jessica, I love your analogy, comparing the process of writing a book to a jigsaw puzzle. I also love these quotes: "Writing a novel (and doing it well) simply takes as long as it takes." and "If you're inspired to write a scene other than the one that comes next in your manuscript, go for it. You can put the story in the right order later."

Trish said...

Jessica: Your wisdom of "writing a novel takes as long as it takes" is about the most accurate and realistic statement I have heard in a very long time --- spot-on! I am revising my novel for about the fourth complete time (not to count the intermittant revisions among a few chapters here and there...). I just find each time has gotten me closer to where I KNOW it should be. Thanks so much for the affirmations and common sense advice. Best, Trish Dolasinski