The Art of Being Uninventive (Alternate Title: How I Wrote Auburn)

I think many writers start off with the idea that they should create every element of a novel from scratch. I did, at any rate. From the characters to scenes and events, my first manuscripts were filled with entirely new, invented elements.

The truth is, it showed. The scenes weren’t vivid, the events weren’t believable, and the characters weren’t interesting. That’s why, with Auburn, I attempted to do the exact opposite: I actively selected memories from my own life. People and places I remembered, and events that naturally grew from their actions and interactions. As much as I’d attempted to invent every element before, I switched to stealing elements from memory.

It seems to have worked. Only time will tell, but based on initial response from beta readers, the characters in Auburn are more compelling, the events are more interesting, and the scenes are easier to picture. Perhaps there is some brilliance behind admitting that I was not clever enough to invent everything from scratch.

But the operative question is, at what point does uninventiveness become an art form? Or rather, how did I apply this new philosophy? It’s been a long time since I simplified my thoughts into a list, but this process seems like a prime candidate. If I may:

  1. I selected past friends and relatives who stuck out in my memory, whom I knew completely enough to recreate, foibles and all, in fiction.
  2. I listed their traits, big and small, related or unrelated. My goal was to build a mental picture of what drove each of them, so that I could write dialogue and action as easily as possible. This is where the characters first started to shift, from the memories of my past to new, unique people; many of them took on traits which were mine, so that I could be more familiar with them. And others took on traits which were neither mine nor their own (at least, initially).
  3. The names and appearances had to change, of course. Interestingly, many characters became different because of this as well; in my mind, I have a certain image of how, say, an Alex might act, and appearance can have a drastic effect on someone’s role within society.
  4. I revisited each character’s personality, emphasized the traits which I thought would make them better characters, and either removed or decided to place less emphasis on those which would be unimportant.
  5. With a whole cast of characters, I started to write. Please note that I didn’t go through the process in 1-4 with each character; only those who were going to be close enough to the story that their personalities could shine through.
  6. As I wrote, I used places from memory without changing them, since descriptions of places tend to give less than a full idea of what that place looks like anyway (some people emphasize certain characteristics which others would ignore entirely).
  7. The events were almost entirely driven by the story; there were few that came straight out of memory. That surprised me; starting out, I expected to use many memories as a basis just as I had for the characters and setting, but that didn’t happen. The more realistic characters ended up causing a new set of events, with little basis on memory, which thrilled me to no end.

The above is admittedly a simplified process, but it does serve to highlight a point: I believe authors must approach writing from a place of empathy and understanding. That is to say, instead of starting with a statement like ‘I want to create wonderful, interesting characters,’ we should start off by saying ‘My characters are facets of my own personality. They exhibit the same interests, likes, and dislikes that I do; the only difference is in degree.’

The ball is still in the air on Auburn; we’ll see what the critics think of it when it gets released in November. But in the meantime, I hope you found this interesting. If so, please like, share, or comment. Until next time!

4 thoughts on “The Art of Being Uninventive (Alternate Title: How I Wrote Auburn)

  1. It’s true, Valerie, that readers are drawn to authentic characters and situations with which they can empathise. I certainly am. Your technique with Auburn seems to have paid off…I’m fascinated that your more deeply realised characters (from more extended parts of you/ friends/ family members) actually took on their own lives, and directed new events themselves.
    This is SO exciting as a writer, that out of this imaginary world, the characters come alive and almost lead the writer. I have had this experience too. A particular character, William, I had written wasn’t particularly sympathetic. One night (freezing cold as well, I had to rug up in blankets) I was driven to rise (by him??!!) and write a detailed dialogue driven scene with his wife, where his anger, shame, disappointment really erupted. He had every right to feel this way, because in this story she had deceived him. She had good motives to do a bad thing ( as Margaret Atwood would say,) but she had lied to him in a profound way. Though essentially a good man, he was a very hard man, and he never really forgave her.

    I’m also interested to know how you gathered your beta readers, Valerie.
    Good luck with Auburn.

    1. It’s definitely very exciting! And hopefully it spells good things (for both of us, haha). Was this scene with William from your latest book, or an entirely new one?

      Oh gosh, I get beta readers from all kinds of different sources, to be honest… I try to cultivate a group of them where I can. If I were to breakdown the betas I’ve had for Auburn so far, I believe it would be something like: one family member (my mom), one close friend, three acquaintances from Twitter, and three from a Goodreads beta reading group. I’m also planning on soliciting beta reads from critics of my debut novel as well, since they’ve shown they aren’t afraid to tell me something I don’t want to hear (although I’ll have to see if that ends up being effective or not). Anyway, hope that helps!

  2. Reblogged this on pjbyerwriterblog and commented:
    Valerie Thomas gives her insightful views on her current writing idea: choosing real characteristics from herself, and others she knows, then extending/ limiting these as fits the plot. She’s been thrilled that these new, imagined characters took on a life of their own and directed events in her new book Auburn.

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