Lessons from Writing a Novel in Stories
Last week, I took a break from our series about the creation of my book, The Goodbye-Love Generation to pay my respects to the late Nanci Griffith, whose beautiful songwriting provides a model for storytellers.
Now, we’re back to our regularly scheduled program. Two weeks ago, I shared how I went from adopting other people’s subject matter to discovering what I was really meant to write about. For me, it was the unique history of my home region of northeast Ohio, particularly the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State University and the integral role of the music scene in and around Kent, Ohio.
I’ve hinted around at my experiences of writing The Goodbye-Love Generation in past posts, most notably an entry where I discussed the infamous story that I rewrote thirteen times, but there’s more to the story than that.
Originally, I wrote The Goodbye-Love Generation as my master’s thesis for my MFA in fiction writing under the title My City Was Gone (more on that in a future post). The process of writing your thesis for this degree is complex and I probably could spend an entire series on just that.
But instead, I want to just break down the key challenges of creating this particular project, in hopes that you might see what you’re trying to accomplish with your own work in progress through my own experiences.
Lesson One: Constructing the Overarching Story
The novel in stories is a unique genre because it consists of several small stories that “talk to each other,” all of them working together to create one all-encompassing narrative.
There are many examples, but the one that has garnered the most attention in recent years is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which focuses on several decades in the lifetime of Olive, a quirky, cantankerous woman who influences her community in a variety of ways.
Olive is the protagonist and a good amount of the stories obviously are written from her point of view. However, the book also takes numerous side trips into the experiences of the people in Olive’s life, from family members to casual acquaintances.
I knew when I wrote my thesis that I wanted the Purple Orange, a Kent-based rock band that gets caught up in the violence of the shootings, to serve as the center point of the overall story. The four band members, Alex, Maddy, Lyle, and Dave, all respond to the crisis in different ways that impact their careers, families, and mental health, and the majority of the stories center on developing their individual character arcs. I also, though, felt that it was important to include alternate perspectives about May 4 from people outside the nucleus of the Purple Orange. In particular, I included a story told from the perspective of a National Guardsman whose life is changed forever after his participation in the shootings.
Another story focuses on a trouble teenage girl in the present day, who is able to comprehend the personal trauma of her parents’ murder/suicide through the life of Allison Krauss, one of the four students killed.
Because I wasn’t writing a traditional novel, my challenges were unusual. Telling the stories in the right order was crucial, and this was something I only truly nailed down years later when I published the book.
But in a novel in stories, the narrative structure emerges more from the combination of the stories as a unit than any particular cues in the plot. Though it may contain rising action, a climax, and falling action, they may not take place in the same matter as in a traditional novel.
If you are writing a poetry or short story collection, or even your own novel in stories, I suggest this exercise: Print out physical copies of all your individual pieces. Sit on the floor and spread them all out around you. Then, start looking at them in different orders. Shuffle them around. Think about how the order of the stories changes the larger meaning of your collection.
This will help to give you a roadmap of what the overall book should look like and show you what kind of story you’re actually telling.
Lesson Two: Confronting My Family’s Trauma
In a previous post, I discussed writing about family stories as a way to process trauma.
I didn’t live through the Vietnam era, but my parents and extended family did. And in choosing to take on this project, I also chose to walk through some minefields.
I was really blessed to my parents who supported this project from the beginning, even if they knew I would be digging around in some pretty painful stuff. I think they saw that something good could come out of their experiences, and maybe even believed that I had a right to understand where they’d been. Lady Gaga has said that there is a kind of generational grief in families that can be passed down over time. The Vietnam era left a lot of scars on my parents and relatives. May 4 is part of it—my uncle was an eyewitness and literally watched his friends gunned down.
But there are other smaller, more insidious ways the trauma of the Vietnam era harmed my family, embedding themselves in their lives like shrapnel.
It’s important to note that none of the stories are detail-for-detail documentations of what happened to people I know. Each story is based on a nugget of truth—a single detail of a real-life situation. I took those nuggets and built stories around them that were consistent with the world I was building for the overall book.
If you want to write stories based in real life, don’t try to document what really happened. That never leads to good fiction. Read my past post on this topic to find out why.
Lesson Three: Research Doesn’t Always Look Like Research
I had a total blast researching this book. Mostly because a lot of it involved listening to music.
The Goodbye-Love Generation is full of allusions to music from the 1970s. One of the stories is called “No Sugar Tonight,” named after a song made famous by The Guess Who.
The final story is titled “And Everybody’s Gonna Feel So Fine,” a line from the Tommy James and the Shondells hit “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which the Purple Orange is famous for covering in concert.
Some of them are more obscure, though, most notably a reference to this totally cornball earworm that was a local hit on Cleveland radio in the late ‘70s.
I think the musical references are a big part of what brings the stories to life. While I wasn’t thinking about this at the time, I can now see that I took a lot of cues from Mad Men, where the use of music and the songs associated with each character are very deliberate. But perhaps a more somber source of information for me was Kent State’s May 4 oral history archive, which preserves the stories of eyewitnesses through audio recordings.
I listened to several of my parents’ friends, as well as my former teachers, tell their stories of the shootings. The archive even includes anonymous testimonies from a few Guardsman, which I used to generate ideas for my own story from the military point of view.
If you are writing a story set in a different time period, consuming the culture of the era can help you create the world more accurately.
Even if you aren’t writing a culture-centric book like mine, knowing the books, music, movies, and news that your characters would have been aware of can imbue your writing with a sense of accuracy.
In a nutshell, that’s the story of the creation of my thesis. In April, 2010, I defended the project before a committee of three faculty members and received my degree a month later.
But there was still more in store for The Goodbye-Love Generation, and that’s coming next week.
In the meantime...is this piquing your curiosity about the book itself? Visit the official website here, where you can also download the first story in the collection for free and learn more about the cultural artifacts that influenced the book.