In the course of writing The Ghost Notebooks Ben Dolnick pondered ghosts: Should they be an imagined manifestation of his main character's grief? Should they be real? He wrote and rejected 100,000 words. Pounded his head against the wall (figuratively). Paced and muttered into a Dictaphone, in circuits around his backyard. Paced and muttered into a Dictaphone, in circuits around New York.
Dolnick's not new to writing fiction; The Ghost Notebooks is his fourth book. But this is Dolnick's first foray into the supernatural realm. His main characters, Nick and Hannah, move into an historic museum in upstate New York, and Hannah unravels. Nick attempts to trace her winding path to madness, and in doing so connects with an invisible society. The story is told not only from Nick's perspective, but also through artifacts revealing other characters' voices.
Though the narrative concept is technically complicated, Dolnick told Spine, tackling the management of multiple perspectives stayed manageable, thanks to his love of voice and his use of Scrivener.
"I'm really obsessed with voices," he said. "The primary pleasure since childhood that made me want to be a writer is that I love the way people sound. If there was a waiter that talked funny when I was a kid, I couldn't help trying to imitate him. … The sound of people is hilarious and wonderful to me." Listening helped Dolnick find the tone for each character. He even discovered one character's voice while eavesdropping at the library.
In his head, he carried a clear picture of how these voices would come together. "I always thought of the book as a physical notebook, like one of those black and white marbled notebooks that people have in school. Whenever I have a notebook, I shove folded papers in there, whether it's handouts or receipts or things I've written on the back of. I was physically picturing an object like that. Crammed throughout were disparate kinds of things – letters, forms, whatever. That was the conceptual structure."
To manage his "notebook," stuffed with ephemera, Dolnick employed Scrivener. He's been using the manuscript software since writing his second book, You Know Who You Are.
"It would have been agony to do [The Ghost Notebooks] without it. It lets you divide each of the voices into their own threads. You can look at them by themselves. You can very easily physically interweave them. You can experiment: What if they were here? What if they were in that order? It was a very visual dragging-and-weaving process, which was great."
The problem of voice management solved, Dolnick faced his biggest challenge for this title: massive writer's block.
After creating the book's beginning, and liking it, Dolnick shared it with his agent Doug Stewart, who also liked it. Keep going, Stewart suggested. Get a little more down before sharing it with an editor. Dolnick tried. And tried and tried and tried. He couldn't move forward. "For a year I tried writing that longer piece. I threw out at least 100,000 words. It was truly agony, the worst time I've ever had writing something. The most grueling and bewildering."
Finally, Dolnick realized he shouldn't move forward; he should move back. He turned the beginning into the middle, and wrote a new beginning. Success!
Ghosts presented Dolnick's other big problem. So intense was his work to create a set of spiritual guidelines for his universe, he ended up inventing "an infinitely more complicated ghost science than what ended up being in the book." His editor, Jenny Jackson, reigned him in, explaining that "you didn't need to give the reader a PhD in ghostology to make it credible."
In the end, a considerable amount of the writing Dolnick produced for the book, never made it into the book. Ghostology, reduced. The book's initial midsection, rejected. Dolnick said it hurt a little, but also he never would have created the final product without doing that initial construction work.
"The image that sometimes comforts me is scaffolding," he explained. "You often have to erect these big structures simply to give you access to this part of the building. It's not a tragedy. It's just part of the work."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.