A Writer's Challenge

Somewhere between writing my eighth and ninth novels, I started to feel like a lazy writer. I began to worry the quality of my work was suffering because I was focusing too much on quantity. There were weaknesses in my work that never existed before. I saw them. I knew I had to do something about them.

I needed to challenge myself as a writer.

As I approached the writing process of my tenth novel, Stronger Than This, I chose to take a risk and experiment with the traditional narrative form I’d written all previous novels in. I made the decision to write my first epistolary novel. In doing so, the challenge I needed was definitely there, but the reward was worth it. As a result, my writing skills were sharpened, my imagination was ignited, and my exhausted creativity was refueled.

Once I committed to writing a novel in epistolary form, I knew I needed to read similar books. I looked to the classics, specifically Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Knowing that technology (in many variations) was going to be a must in my novel, I also looked to more contemporary titles, including The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky and The Antagonist by Lynn Coady.

Not happy with just writing a novel comprised of letters shared between two characters, the storylines of Stronger Than This are revealed to the reader in multiple forms: text messages, letters, online chats, memos, interviews, and more. This posed creative challenges, specifically the substantial lack of dialogue (which, if used correctly, can move a story forward quickly). As the novel features two protagonists (one male and one female), I had to establish significant differences in their “voices” and try to capture each in every form of communication they used throughout the book.

The writing process was complex but exhilarating. Constantly I discovered new means to reveal important plot points, establish place and time, and create characters that were as authentic as possible. I also found ways to tell the story from the perspectives of other characters, especially minor ones. By doing so, it added to the universe I was building for my two main characters; how others viewed them was important to their development on the page. My biggest literary hurdle existed in telling the backstory of two supporting characters – both of whom die within the first twenty pages of the novel.

Once I reached the midway point of the manuscript, I nearly quit. More than once, I considered abandoning this crazy form of storytelling and returning to the comfortable linear narrative land I knew well.

Looking back, I’m pleased I made the decision to challenge myself as a writer. In doing so, I discovered a new passion for what I do. Writing Stronger Than This certainly kept me on my toes each step of the way. But the entire creative journey is one I am grateful for. The result is a book that is unconventional and unique, much like the characters whose lives fill the pages.

I wish I could say I have immediate plans to write another novel in this form, but I don’t. However, I do find myself constantly examining form now –- and the wild possibilities that can occur by experimenting with it.

David-Matthew Barnes