According to my journals, I wrote the first notes for my novel The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones on August 2, 1996. “No title yet,” I wrote, “but it’s about the summer of 1978.” Oh, I remember that summer; it was illicit, a little risky, and it woke me up to life. Eighteen years later, I decided to use that summer’s events as a plot.
But, if I just wrote out everything that happened that summer, it would have been one boring-ass story. It wouldn’t even be a story, but a chronicle of episodes that, though funny and maybe even poignant and important to me, would be nothing but a long book-length report on a series of incidents.
That’s not a novel. A novel is a narrative, one that we expect a lot out of. A reader wants a book that will take her away from the world she lives in and whisk her off into someone else’s fictitious life. Why? Escape, partly; but I think there’s a primal craving in all of us for stories, for entertainment, for distraction and, with a really good book, a way of making sense of the chaotic world we’ve been forced to inhabit.
In 1996, with nearly two decades of distance between me and the incidents of my real 1978, I had sharp memories of that summer to work with but not to report. I had enough images to play around with in fiction.
I first made a list of characters, which is where I usually start.
You might have a great idea for a story; but if your characters suck, no one will want to read it. These are preliminary notes, scratches of personalities, ones that, through the pages of the journals and the manuscript, took on more flesh as the writing days passed.
“What is the conflict?” I wrote. There it is: already I was concerned about the real 1978 getting in the way of my fictional 1978. So I found the first moment: a depressed, suicidal teenager’s mother decides it’s too expensive to send him to therapy, so she takes him to San Francisco to spend the summer with his Salvadoran, macho, mujeriego, weed-smoking, drug dealing Uncle Jack, in order to wake the boy up to life.
Then I wrote the note about first person, that the novel would be told from the protagonist’s point of view. The I would be our guide.
All that in one page. I had figured out the basics, ones that would change and grow. Some characters would be cut from the story, because they weren’t serving any role. That page helped, a lot; I wrote the novel rather quickly, finishing the first draft on January 11, 1997—five months. That’s not happened much; I probably average twelve to eighteen months working on a book. But this one came into the world pretty fast.
So, here are my first two pieces of cheap advice: 1. Find the same time of day, every day, to write, and make sure the people in your life leave you the hell alone so you can concentrate; and 2. Start writing notes, particularly on your characters. If you’re lucky to have an overall plot in your head (as I did with Cojones), great; but don’t feel wedded to it. A good novelist will let her own story surprise her; if she’s surprised, the reader will be too.