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Author Marina Budhos writes about finishing her latest novel:

ask me no questionsMy plan this summer was to force myself to write to the end of my historical novel, a book I have been working on for a number of years while I completed other projects.  Summer is my best writing time, when I am home, puttering around my house, the children off in camp, with no teaching responsibilities fracturing my attention. My aim, then, was to bring this all to a head, especially since the end of this novel is meant to be very dramatic and also violent, a crescendo of so many parts, voices, themes.  And yet even the most thoughtful of plans have a way of upending.

Set against the crumbling backdrop of late 19th century British Empire, my novel is about the unlikely friendship between an Indian woman and English woman—a bond that is threatened when they move from India to a Caribbean sugar estate, and violence starts to sweep the plantation.  It is an ambitious book, as I am juggling multiple points of view along with foreign and historic settings, politics, even technical information about sugar growing that I must make vivid to a modern reader.

After building up this world over a number of years, I anticipated that the challenge of writing the ending would be that it was like a tidal wave that is slowly mounting, ready to curl; and yet one would still need to pay attention to the water particles.  One would still have to build scene by scene, moment by moment, even as you were aware of these huge forces compelling the narrative forward.

To my surprise, the ending, the denouement, a series of fast-paced acts, is coming swifter than I expected.  There was no deep rumble in my consciousness, no mounting wave of creativity.  Mostly I find myself sketching out plot—one bad event and bad decision leading to another, and hopefully mounting to tragedy.  This is somehow vaguely disappointing, and runs counter to my more romantic vision of the summer’s work.  But perhaps this is what I need to do—work more as an architect, more cerebrally— setting down the structure.  Then the deeper, unconscious swells will emerge.

This is what I tell myself now as I write event-driven material, pushing toward the end.  Sometimes we need to ride the waves.  And sometimes we must navigate with a plot compass, trusting that instinct and fever dreams will return.

Marina Budhos writes adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction.  Her recent novel, Ask Me No Questions, won the James Cook Teen Book Award and was an ALA Best Book.  Her prior books include House of Waiting, The Professor of Light, and Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers.  In 2010, she will publish a YA novel, Tell Us We’re Home, and Sugar Changed the World, co-authored with her husband, Marc Aronson.  She teaches creative writing, literature, and Asian Studies at William Paterson University, and can be reached at www.marinabudhos.com

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I’m curious about how literary writers whose work is also commercial balance two often conflicting objectives:  telling a good story and exploring setting, theme, and character. One day this wee1118759_32303519k I was privileged to spend time with two terrific novelists, Alison Larkin and Marina Budhos, who had very different and equally useful takes on this question.

Alison told me that she reads the thriller writer Harlan Coben for plot. Coben is a master of building and maintaining suspense, she said; you can’t help turning the pages. Paying attention to how he withholds and reveals information has been instructive for her. Marina said that, for her, “a first draft is all about exploration, but at a certain point that exploration has to stop.” She talked about the challenges of revision: taking a first draft and pulling the threads of plot and character all the way through, while at the same time ruthlessly cutting and repositioning the prose so the story has immediacy and urgency. In a first draft, then, the writer should feel free to experiment and digress – and I would argue that the literary writer must do so, to remain open to the unanticipated byways of the creative process – but in a second draft the writer has to remember that the prose exists solely in service to the story.  As the writer Honor Moore says, “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.”

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