How a Novel is Like a Hurricane

If you live on the coast, and especially if you’ve ever experienced a hurricane before (Florida, 2004: Charley, Frances, and Jeanne) you pay attention to Hurricane season (June through November) keeping an eye out on the NOAA National Hurricane Center website for what’s brewing in the Atlantic. This is similar to how stories brew. Lots of ideas form, just like a lot of lows, depressions, tropical storms, and even hurricanes form, but never make it to the US, those ideas never make it within striking distance of becoming a novel.

Oh, they may actually become a hurricane of intent, like a solid partial, but turn or simply fade away before posing a threat of becoming a real novel that will disturb my life for the foreseeable future.
A tropical wave began with potential to become a depression, like when a vague idea for a plot, or for me, I imagine a specific character I need to explore. Soon Matthew passed through typical stages of development and Floridians began taking note. A novel may pass through similar stages, and just like each hurricane is unique, my budding novel may evolve differently: the villain might appear before my hero; the setting may play a key part in the plot, or my heroine decides the story is all about her.
Once Matthew gained strength and the NHC began posting potential paths that included the east coast of Florida, my checks of their website became a little obsessive. 
Just as my stories begin to take over my life (my husband has caught on and is rarely confused when I begin telling him what happened to “Joe” or “Lis” that day--my current hero and heroine in Point of Failure, book three of my Gulf Coast Rescue series).

Things were heating up in the Atlantic and the very real possibility of a hurricane striking Florida meant plans needed to kick in. 
This is that threshold between the possibility of a novel (when a nice strong outline and maybe even a pretty decent partial becomes a very viable novel—wow, this looks like it could be real!) Just as research kicks up and plot twists percolate, real plans for boarding up my house and plans for evacuation are put into place. Now it’s not so much a matter of if, but when and how bad. 
For my budding novel, I need to decide how big of a story do I have? Is this a novella, an 80,000 word romantic suspense, or a 100,000 word mainstream thriller?

Putting up the shutters is concrete action that mirrors my growing first draft. With this clear action, there are still a lot of unknowns and variables. Will a mandatory evacuation be called? (While this was true in 2004 for both Frances and Jeanne, both times we opted to stay on our island and tough it out—but neither of those hurricanes were considered “major” (category 3 or higher) Matthew was predicted to maintain major hurricane status as it traveled up the eastern coast of Florida, at times with a dead aim at the island I call home).

In my novel I’ve made some concrete decisions as well—who my characters are, what challenges they will be facing, and how it has to end. But just like the path of Matthew changes almost hourly, my story can take new paths and unexpected twists that only reveal themselves as I put words on the screen.

Once the mandatory evacuation is given, more concrete plans are put into place: the bottom shelves of my bookcases are emptied. Clothes in the bottom drawers are packed and placed on the bed (assuming minor flooding might occur: even though our island is not on the ocean, it is between two rivers that routinely leave their banks when pushed by hurricane-strength winds)—but if the roof goes, you can pretty much kiss your belongs goodbye! This I would equate to a finished rough draft. Things can and will change, but I have a solid direction and timeline to work in.

Packing up the truck, not knowing if I will have a house standing when I return is another great analogy—if I’ve sold my novel I’ve made a commitment to produce a specific work by a specific time. Even if I self-publish, I need to make that promise to myself—but there are unknown pitfalls all along the way.

After I load my cat into the truck, my husband and I hit the road anticipating an adventure—no matter what happens, our little family (real and my imagined characters) are going to face a lot of unknowns (will we find a motel/hotel room or be camping in the truck? How many gas stations and restaurants will be closed along our route? A bigger problem when you have so many coastal areas evacuating inland.)

My stories continue to evolve between drafts with surprises and serendipity (so that’s why my heroine is afraid of dogs!) when we found the last room at a motel in Ringgold, Georgia (where we ended up buying a trailer that we can use to not only haul our two motorcycles in, we can live in comfort when the next hurricane comes calling). The return trip and subsequent clean-up
(we were extremely lucky when Matthew jogged east instead of west) is like that final read after my novel has been revised and edited. Sometimes you have only minor changes, other times you basically start over.

Either way, it’s just another adventure for a novelist living on the coast—one I’m very willing to face, because you just never know what’s going to happen with hurricanes or novels!


So, how did you weather Matthew’s passing or your latest draft? Did you pass the storm reading a good book, or two? Editing or starting over with a storm of new ideas?

Comments

Having been in the "cone of destruction" for Matthew, I really can relate to this description of how writing a novel is like a hurricane. Very clever :-)
Mary P said…
Weathered the storm but lost power for 3 days. With no electronics, spent the time reading Jayhawk Down.
jean harrington said…
Good post, witty analogy. As for Matthew, he didn't come calling here on Florida's west coast. So we dodged that bullet--this time.

On another note, I wrote a life-threatening hurricane in Designed for Death, the first book in my Murders by Design series. To ratchet up the suspense, the heroine fights the storm as she's fighting off the killer. Hurricanes are fun--in fiction only.
Wow, Sharon, great analogy! I feel like I've had several tropical depressions circling me lately, and I need one of them to develop into something more severe. ;) I'm so glad everything turned out okay for you.
Rita said…
My community, St Augustine, was hit very hard by Matthew. Homes standing for 5, 6, and 7 decades in much worse storms were flooded with up to 4 feet of water. The houses on 3 streets to the north of me are total losses. Downed trees everywhere. I had 2 feet deep of running water in the back yard and my front yard was flooded half way up with tidal surge leaving fish in the street and yard. I have to get a leaning fence repaired and clean up. My heart breaks for friends who have all their belongings piled in the street to be taken away.
Is this like writing? I suppose. The bottom line is never give up. If someone or something, like downed trees, is in your way shove it away and move on. Do your best.
Sharon Calvin said…
Having experienced tornadoes as a child growing up in Kansas, I developed a strong fear (phobia?) around storms that has only marginally improved with age. My heroines all brave the storms, I do not!

For us here on the Space Coast we definitely dodge the bullet St. Augustine and Jacksonville got hit with. Giving up makes you a victim, whether its walking away from the story you're meant to tell, or the life you're meant to live. How we cope with disasters, in writing, and life, puts the control back in our hands when some things like hurricanes and publishers try to take it away!
Sandy Parks said…
Perfect analogy! Loved the comparison to Mathew and can totally relate! Can't wait to Joe's story comes out.

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