The Hardest Part: Nathan Kotecki on Pull Down the Night

Durham author Nathan Kotecki‘s debut novel, 2012’s The Suburban Strange, was an exercise in lengthy revision, as Kotecki wrote about in a The Hardest Part piece about its writing. When I got to talk to Kotecki about his new sequel, Pull Down the Night, on Carolina Book Beat, I started to get the impression that his second book had been an almost painless process. Not quite so, as the author writes here. Welcome back, Nathan Kotecki, to The Hardest Part:

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct 2013

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c. 2013 by Mr. Gates

By Nathan Kotecki:

When it came time to write my second book –  the sequel to last year’s The Suburban Strange – I was not at a loss. I had plenty of inspiration, a solid conceptual idea, and no shortage of motivation. I suppose I felt a bit of anxiety that my first book might have been a “fluke,” and that perhaps lightning wouldn’t strike a second time, but that concern wasn’t strong enough to slow me down.

I had a clear idea of how the series was going to develop. Rather than follow my protagonist from The Suburban Strange (Celia), the series is really about a location through which characters will continue to pass – Suburban High School. And so as much as I loved Celia, and even though she is still a major character in books two and three, I was going to shift the point of view to a new character with each subsequent installment. I met Bruno and a few other new characters to join the story in book two, titled Pull Down the Night, and got down to work.

As with the first book, I felt it was important for my secondary characters to have some sort of arc, themselves. (In The Suburban Strange, seven of Celia’s friends have minor but significant arcs of their own.) If only the main character grows and changes in a novel, it feels artificial; while we change, the world is changing around us, too. So, in conjunction with the coming-of-age crossed with supernatural journey I envisioned for Bruno, I conceived secondary plot lines for his friends, attempting to weave them together into a coherent whole.

For a while, though, the coherent whole wasn’t appearing. I had plot points sprawling out in every direction: a love triangle as well as a shot at romantic redemption, sets of misaligned agendas – both real and supernatural, the meddling of a mischievous ghost, a chaotic neutral gatekeeper, a few betrayals and their consequences, and a flock of boys who want to sleep with everyone. Oh, and a minister who is trying to deal with a crisis of faith.

Yeah, it was a bit of a mess. But as sprawling as it was, I loved all of it, and I really didn’t want to let go of anything, because deep down I believed there was a place in this book for all my ideas. I just had to figure out how to whip it into shape.

(That wasn’t an easy call, by the way. I imagined my editor saying, “We really need to think about walking away from [insert any of the subplots here].” There is that dreaded note: “Plot confusion.” When I resolved to protect all the pieces I had, it was very important that I get it right, or I risked giving my editor the impression that there was too much going on, and then having to try to overcome her request to cut back.)

Typically my writing process begins with a research and idea-generation phase, which results in a collection of clear impressions of scenes, moments, and turning points toward which I will begin to write. For Pull Down the Night, instead of creating an outline at that stage – which felt like a flat and lifeless exercise, I jumped directly into a gloriously messy first draft, replete with gaping holes, inconsistencies, and unresolved chronology issues. This paid off, because I had many great experiences of being pleasantly surprised during those early writing sessions.

I always get excited when I realize mid-scene that a character really needs to take a different direction than I envisioned, or that a missed opportunity can be reclaimed with a certain change in setting or plot – these epiphanies convince me I’m being true to the project, allowing it to develop authentically, rather than forcing my agenda. (I will admit, this approach probably also contributed to my overabundance of ideas.) Once the first draft was done – and fully aware that at that point it resembled three distinct novels more than one, I went about extracting an outline from the draft, and in so doing, began to make structural decisions to refine the manuscript.

This is what saved me with Pull Down the Night. I made a mess, then wrote an outline to tighten it up. Then I wrote the next draft (still incredibly messy and sprawling) and afterward went back to re-outline, see what had changed, and figure out how it might change further. I kept looking around in my story for the places where loops could be tightened, scenes and motives combined, and characters returned to balance.

The design process – whether it is in visual art, choreography, architecture, or, yes, writing – has always fascinated me. I have found so many instances in other people’s work and in my own when the work is strongest because the design process was customized to best facilitate the project. What I mean by that is: While this cadence of draft/outline/draft/outline/draft/outline worked very well for Pull Down the Night, it’s simply the technique that was appropriate to solve the problems I encountered with this project, and not the default approach I’ll use to write other books.

As it happens, the next project I’m working on –  a young adult novel without any supernatural elements – is a bit of a roman a clef, and as such, it called for a much more structured outline before I began any writing at all. That’s not to say there haven’t been some major epiphanies following the first draft, but they have been of a very different type, and the outline has remained intact. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you the hardest part of finishing that novel before too long.


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