“I write only because there is a voice inside me that will not be still.” Sylvia Plath
This week was fairly productive writerly-wise. I Had It All Under Control.
So imagine my surprise when, during the creation of a new in-between chapter in my WIP, a new, insistent voice came to call. A kernel of an idea so intriguing that I had to come to a full stop to appreciate what I heard.
My first reaction was, “Did I just think of that?!”
My second was, “I don’t have time for this.”
I tried to ignore him, despite the fact that he intrigued me. Voices pop up in my head all the time. Most often when I’m supposed to be working hard on something that needs attention paid to get it right.
Then I remember the day that the main character in my WIP spoke to me. Compelling. Funny. Irresistible. I opened my ear to her and fell in love. So when this nerdy guy started nattering away in my ear, I stopped and take dictation. Because the character who is interrupting me today may be the star of tomorrow’s show.
Will you stop and listen to that voice deep down inside you? The one who wants you and only you to relate their unique story? Don’t block out this gift. Write it down. File it away for when you are able to give that character’s story attention. It may be a gift.
One of the things that children brought into my life was drama. No, no. Not that kind. The kind you find on stage once the lights go down. Serious stuff. Comedic stuff. Lines that make me itch for a pen in hand so that I can savor them years from now. I had the opportunity to write for Arts & Culture Texas about the One Act Play contest. High schools gear up for this each spring and put heart, soul and magic into a forty minute cut of an approved script.
When writing a rough draft, I find it easiest to jump in and write a few chapters to see what the characters have in mind. Which works well for me – except when it doesn’t.
Ten chapters into my latest work in progress I stumbled upon a major problem. I didn’t know how it ended. Worse, I found that I couldn’t see where this story began. This is a stumbling block of insurmountable proportions, so I quickly stopped to take stock to see what I could do to get over, around or through it.
I hauled out every book I own on plot. (Amazingly enough, I own tons of books about writing. I must love to read or something.)
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
The Weekend Novelist by Robert J Ray
The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field
Plot by Ansen Dibell
Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, or how to pretend to write a novel in 30 days.
Surely these fine authors could help me plow through this challenge easily.
After spending an inordinate amount of time looking at these books – and a multitude of blogs – I came to the harsh conclusion that these folks are not me. Their solutions are not mine. I needed to look at this from my own perspective.
I filled out index cards. (Actually, I let Scrivener print the index cards — love this program.)
I plotted the fifteen point solution to plotting that so many children’s writers use.
I looked at inciting incidents and plot points and character motivations. And still had the front end problem.
So I took it to the mat, AKA my critique group.
They didn’t tell me what to do; They asked me questions. And I found my answer. I still have to do the work, but my critique group helped me find it. (Have I mentioned lately why I love critique partners?)
So what were the questions they asked?
What is her motivation? (She had two conflicting ones, which explains a lot about why I was sitting there treading water with her instead of moving forward.)
What does she want?
Why does she take the job that is central to the book’s action?
What scares her about the job?
What are the stakes for her if she fails?
None of these were new-to-me questions. I had done an extensive character sketch that includes these questions before starting this book.
But remember that duality I was dealing with. I hadn’t decided if she was inherently light or if she had a slight streak of larceny running through her veins. Turns out the duality makes sense for this character. One of her main motivations is to reunite with her family. She’s been cast out for getting arrested for grand larceny. Made sense if her family was on the good-guy side of the art world, but things kept cropping up in the chapters that indicated her family were criminal masterminds. (Which I was loving.)
Then came a follow-up question, the perfect question.
What if it was the character’s family of origin had a split-personality?
One branch are law-biding, fine upright member of society kind of people. The other branch of the family are highly organized thieves. Main Character’s got to make a decision which path to take incidentally deciding which side of the family are “her” people.
I have been waiting for several months for the latest revision to perk a bit on the back burner before jumping back in.
Just before I turned in my manuscript for the SCBWI conference critiques, it hit me. I had it all wrong.
When my husband goes fishing, he has the presence of mind to gut the fish and chop off the head before he tosses the fish into the cooler. He knows how I feel about fish. I like them fried, broiled, sautéed, but never ever with the head on.
Readers like their books the same way. Appetizing, without a stinky dried up piece of inedible flesh hanging about on their plate.
Writers often have to know so much more than readers need or want to know about what is going on in the background. Writers need that background noise to give us insight into characters motivations and history. When I write my initial drafts, there is so much extra information on the page that the book is often twice as long as it needs to be. (Still trying to figure out a more efficient way of figuring it all out!) Thus, writers often need to prune their manuscripts before it goes to agent, editor, and reader.
I was fortunate enough to get into a novel revision workshop a month before the deadline for my seven minutes of fame with a hot agent. I took my recently completed middle grade novel featuring a young girl who lives for horses. (Sound like anyone you know?) The workshop went like this. We were teamed up with three other writers. We sent out manucripts to each of the other three writers and they did a detailed critique. My results? All three people who read my manuscript picked the eighth chapter as the first strong chapter. That meant the opening of the book contained seven weak chapters in a row. Ouch!
Not all that many readers are going to stick it through to the eighth chapter just on the off chance that the book will get interesting . . . eventually. So I started reading the book at the first strong chapter, Chapter Eight. The story still made sense and moved quickly…yes there were some key things missing, but it was clear what had to be done.
Fish Head. Whack. First six chapters hit the NotUsedMaterial.doc file. Voila.
I reworked the first page of the Chapter Seven, aka new Chapter One, smoothed the rest of it a bit, then sent it in and began to work on another project. After all it would be another two months before I got to sit down and listen to the notes the agent had for me on the piece.
Of course I spent some of that time worrying. Had I cut it too close to the action? Six chapter off the front of a manuscript is an awful lot of material to cut. Would the characters and their relationships still be understandable?
Evidently yes, because when I sat down with my critiquer, she said it read well. Not well enough that she wanted to rep it, but she did give me loads of great notes to work from, but all in all a much more positive outlook from this than I got last year.
So now all I have to do is rewrite the rest of the story so that it 1) fills enough pages to actually be a book and 2) keep it exciting and satisfying enough that someone will want to read it all the way through.
The magnificent Deborah Adams, author of the Jesus Creek mystery series and editor in chief of Oconee Press, asked me to guest blog for her. This made me realize just how long it had been since I posted a new blog article here.
Long time, no see. Now working on a blog schedule for myself. I am letting myself go. This Will Not Do.
Not that I’m shutting the door on anything just yet, mind you.
But the magazine article writing is going well.
My first article in Texas Gardener comes out in the April/May issue. Look for it at stores near you.
Fiction requires a pretty darn long stretch with no other commitments in it for me to accomplish anything much. I need to clear a few things off my desk first before I can really tidy up the WiP and send it out. I expect to get back to writing my stuff – as opposed to other people’s stuff – within the month. I’ll be back to blogging regularly then.
Until then, I’ll leave you with a quote for thought:
“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin
A great exercise to figure out where you don’t want to go is to write, “I am afraid….” over and over again until the sentence rises up off the page and punches you in the gut. Then you’ll know a compelling subject on which to set your sights.
I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.
This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.
I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.
Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in. What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden. But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.
Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.
Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?