Guest Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan
Writing the first draft of a novel is about the toughest work I’ve undertaken (and I should mention that I’ve worked on the line at GM, waitressed in a greasy spoon and spent years as a financial analyst at IBM). Yes, I have the gist of the novel before I put fingertips to keyboard. For The Painted Girls I had a three-page synopsis and about six months of research under my belt. But no amount of upfront work prepares me for the million decisions I face each time I’m writing a first draft, the feeling that a single wrong turn might lead me down a garden path, skirting the blooms I meant to pick along the way, so that I emerge at the far end with a bouquet far substandard to the one I set out to create.
Where shall I begin the story? With nasty Monsieur LeBlanc arriving to collect the rent the Van Goethem family of The Painted Girls does not possess? Should I proceed chronologically? Is first or third person the better choice? Past or present tense? Should the narrator— in the case of The Painted Girls, Marie van Goethem, a real life model for Edgar Degas— have a mother? Yes. A sister? Two, as she did in real life. Should her older sister Antoinette tell part of the story? And that bad boy she meets behind the Paris Opéra, should she go to a tavern with him? Should they fall in love? Should that love story become central to the plot? And now back the story I thought I was writing, the one about Degas’s model Marie. Will she show a talent for dancing? Will she meet a wealthy male admirer of the ballet in Degas’s studio? Will he be lecherous as were so many of those supposed patrons of the day?
The level of uncertainty is disarming and at times paralysing. I think, for me, it’s uncertainty that causes writers’ block, not a dearth of ideas or creativity, but rather a fear of making the wrong choice, heading down the wrong path and wasting a month or a year, a fear of writing a lousy book.
Wreaking havoc alongside the uncertainly so inherent to writing first draft is the impossibility of truly knowing the characters I am only just beginning to set on the page. I don’t yet know how they speak, or what they will and will not do, or how they might react. Those nascent characters are erratic and inconsistent. Their names change mid-paragraph. These shadow characters are far from living, breathing intimates. There comes a point, though, if a writer is lucky, if she’s done the work required, when the shadow retreats and a character takes on flesh and blood. And just like I know my sister and can predict how she will react or what she will say, my characters begin to weigh in, participating in how the story unfolds, curbing the decisions to be made. I’ve heard other writers say that they found their voice or that their characters spoke to them or that the story wrote itself. And while the latter seems a gross oversimplification, I think we’re all speaking of the blessed moment when our characters become real in our minds. It’s the moment when the first draft ceases to be a slog, an endurance test of sitting down each morning to rein in endless possibilities.
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s “The Painted Girls” is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a “New York Times” bestseller, and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention—everything from selection as a “People Magazine” pick to inclusion in “Entertainment Weekly’s” Must List. Her debut novel, “The Day the Falls Stood Still“, is a “New York Times” bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.