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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
I’m currently in that wonderful, awful, exhilarating, anxiety-ridden phase of choosing a plot for my next novel.
I experience this incredible mix of feelings before every new book I start – can’t decide what I want to write about, nothing excites me, etc, etc.
In the past I’ve tried starting with an interesting character. I have whole lists of characters I love and hate. But for some reason that doesn’t work for me. I do better when I start with an idea or an intriguing question.
But why does it take me so long to find one? Assuming for a moment I’m not just lazy and haven’t lost my passion for writing, what else could cause this perennial problem?
What first excited me about writing Run To Me was the idea for the story: a woman everyone dismissed as crazy saves the life of a child in danger. That was my original premise, my intriguing 'what-if'. That’s what set me on fire creatively and made me want to write the book.
That’s the kind of fire I’m looking for now!
What I want isn’t just a plot that ‘works’ but an idea that keeps me awake at night. Something that makes me jump out of bed in the morning and run to the computer to see what comes next.
Am I demanding too much? Putting too much pressure on my feeble brain? I don’t think so. I believe what I’m after - that fire, that excitement - is worth searching for.
So for now, let’s not call it writers block. Let's just call Writer’s Limbo.
I'm playing around with my latest writing tool – the chapter sequence – and have found another way it helps me expand and revise my novels.
Currently I’m looking for ways to ‘flesh out’ a first draft – to increase my wordcount and deepen my characters at the same time.
In my last post I described how I created snippets of things to add to the story and the chapter sequence helped me find places to insert them.
Now I’m doing it the other way around – reading through the chapter sequence (the short hand version of all my scenes) and asking myself what sorts of things my characters might be wondering or thinking about in each one.
I’ve written these topics down on a list for further development, after which I may add them to the story. My list includes things like:
Scanlon reflects on his actions towards Raina – is he out for justice or revenge?
Raina wonders what kind of mother she’d be
Erin reflects on her life before she landed on the streets
These are all things readers might wonder about as they’re reading the story. And knowing the answers will give them (and me) a deeper understanding of my characters.
The strange thing is, with my process of writing in layers, I can’t always know what some of these topics are going to be until after the first draft is finished.
What’s that great quote? ‘Only when I see what I’ve written do I know what I think.’? In my case it’s, Only when I see what I’ve written do I know the best way to flesh it out.)
But once the first draft is done and laid out in my chapter sequence, suddenly all sorts of possibilities leap out at me. Like stringing lights on a Christmas tree – the structure’s there, I’m just filling in the gaps.
So so far I have two uses for my chapter sequence: reading it through helps me generate ideas for things to add, and when I get an idea out of the blue, the sequence shows me where best to put it.
Nifty gadget, this CS.
I’m probably not the only writer out there disturbed by the number of people I encounter these days wanting or attempting to write a book when they don’t read them.
To me this is like someone trying to learn to play an instrument who never listens to music.
In the years I taught violin, whenever I started a new crop of beginners I could always tell which ones listened to music at home and which ones didn’t.
The ones that did had a concept of the sound of the instrument already in their inner ear. And somehow, from the first time they touched their bow to the strings, that internalized concept guided their efforts. You could hear the difference.
It has to be the same with writers and reading. All the how-to-write books and courses in the world can’t help someone get the music of language into their heads. The rhythm and articulation of the words, the flow of well-constructed sentences, syntax, dialogue, etc. are things that can only be assimilated through repeated exposure.
If you don’t read fine work, how can you expect fine work to come out of you?
I guess in a way it’s the old ‘wax on, wax off’ principle: Good writing in, good writing out.
Filed under Notes to Self...
Question: That book you’re reading by your favorite author that you absolutely love… Do you think the author wrote it on a high, believing every word was golden?
Do you think your favorite author never agonized over a sentence, deleted pages, tore out whole scenes (along with her hair)? That there never was a day she didn’t despair that every word she set down was rubbish?
Just like you, there would’ve been times when your favorite author struggled and bled for every word and others when the writing seemed to flow as though dictated by some higher being.
But here’s the question I’m really asking: Can you as a reader tell the difference in the finished product?
As you read any story, can you pick the passages the author was (and possibly still is) unhappy with? Can you distinguish them from the ones they considered their best writing ever? Is the author’s despair, elation, frustration over the actual writing itself apparent anywhere on the page?
No. And neither is it so for you. Give it a month and you’ll forget how hard or easy those passages were to write. All you’ll have is pages to work with, to revise and polish until they shine. And that’s all any author needs, something to work with. So just get some words on the page.
Bottom line: Don’t let a bad mood stop you from writing. Write anyway. It’s amazing how differently the same passage will look to you tomorrow when you’re feeling more confident compared to today when you’re feeling down.
Almost from the time I began writing novels I had a plan for reaching my goal of making a living as a full-time author.
When I had a novel ready to submit I’d research publishers accepting that genre, make a list and work my way through it in order of preference.
In the meantime of course the theory was that I would keep working. But it didn’t always pan out that way. Writing is hard. Basking in the knowledge I’d written something and sent it to a publisher was easier and a lot more fun to think about.
As the weeks went by with no reply on my submission, I found it harder and harder to focus on my work in progress. My mind kept flitting back to the editor who had my manuscript. Had they read it yet? Why hadn’t they gotten back to me? What on earth was taking so long?
This sense of time wasting got me feeling enormously frustrated. It took me several years to see (and perhaps another to fully accept) that certain things are out of my hands as a writer. And the bottom line is – what’s out of my hands is not my job.
I have no control over when an editor reads my submission; when, or even if they reply to me. I have no control over what themes they like, their personal hates, or what their other authors are writing.
The only thing I have control over as a writer is the quality and quantity of the work I produce. That’s it. That’s my number one job – keep writing to the best of my ability. And as long as I’m doing that, time isn’t wasting.
Yes, the submission process takes ages, often years. But that need not be a source of frustration. You can still be moving your career forward even before your first book is published. How? By writing.
In a nutshell here is my submission strategy:
#1 Finish the book
#2 Revise it until it’s the best I can make it with the writing skills I currently possess. Don’t get hung up on endlessly tinkering with a single manuscript. Move on. Write the next one. With each book you refine and acquire new skills.
#3 Submit my polished manuscript to the editors on my list. And in the meantime…
#4 Start a new project.
This is the best way I’ve found to conquer the pressure that builds inside me after I’ve submitted a manuscript. Sitting around waiting makes me feel powerless, my life controlled by the whim of others.
As long as I keep writing new stories, whenever I begin to fret that time is wasting I can say to myself, ‘No, it’s not. I’m doing my job. When the call comes, I will be ready.’
Even if it takes ten or more years to get your first novel accepted (it took me 11 years BTW) if you stick to this plan, you could quite well have ten other manuscripts to show your new editor when the time finally comes.
Your editor might not want to publish all of them but even if they take just one or two you’re ahead of the game. For most authors revising an older manuscript is faster than starting a new one from scratch. And as sales experts know: the best time to sell your second book is straight after you’ve sold your first.
Your earlier manuscripts weren’t necessarily rejected because they’re no good. Often manuscripts get rejected simply because their genre isn’t selling at the time, or the publisher just released a book on a similar subject. The market fluctuates. What’s not selling today could be the hottest thing in five years time.
So don’t slow down on your production. The minute you submit a manuscript, start the next. That is your power as a writer.
Those manuscripts in your bottom drawer aren’t rejects, they’re planes on the runway waiting to take off!
‘Drama is life with the boring bits left out.’
I love this quote by Alfred Hitchcock. It applies not only to movie making but novel writing as well, especially suspense. And I try to adhere to it as much as possible in writing my own.
What I choose to write in a story is never a blow-by-blow account of what happens. I skip the dull bits and if there’s any information the reader needs from it, I have my characters talk about or reflect on it later.
In the story I’m currently working on I’ve just written the opening scene where my heroine saves a man whose car brakes fail on a steep mountain road. The scene ends with her pulling him from his submerged vehicle and reviving him with CPR thus saving his life.
The next thing that would actually happen in the story is that the paramedics would arrive and take him to the hospital while the heroine is questioned and then driven home by the police.
But there isn’t really much interesting in that. The injured man is once again unconscious so there can be no exchange between him and the heroine. And the heroine will only tell the cops information the reader already knows.
Instead what I’ll do is cut from the moment the heroine revives the stranger to when the police drop her back at her house. There, upon seeing a police car pull up at the door, her father greets her anxiously and a conversation between them deepens both characters and reveals info that furthers the plot.
The only information I need to get across to the reader from the time period I omitted is that the injured man briefly regained consciousness, long enough to look into the heroine’s eyes and say something to her. That’s all I need. And it’s easy enough to have her reflect on this as she’s talking to her father or getting ready to head off to work.
To me the easiest way to know what to cut from a story is by how I feel about writing it. If I’m not looking forward to writing a scene, if it doesn’t excite or move me in some way, I know the chances are pretty good that it won’t do a lot for the reader either.
As a reader, what sorts of things would you prefer to do without in a story? Physical descriptions of the characters? Scene setting? What do you too often find in a story that you'd rather the author had left out?