My five-year-old daughter presented me with a picture book valentine today. It is a story of romance about her mama and daddy, still married after twenty-three years, still so happy she sees it in our lives. We're pretty casual about Valentine's Day in this house, but seriously: Best Gift Ever.
Feb 2, 2011
I was feeling pretty good about this book until I hit chapter 16. I thought the pacing could be improved in a few chapters and there might be some extraneous material I could cut, but I didn't see any major red flags. The good stuff in this book is oh so good. Delicious.
Then I hit chapter 16.
In Chapter 16, I introduce new material, tie up some loose ends, introduce new problems, and expand the mythology of Claire's world at a rapid pace. Way. Too. Rapid. I was feeling pretty good about the author until I reached this point and then I kept mumbling, "What the hell is wrong with you?" and "Why are you doing this to me?"
The good news is that I know how to fix it.
I wrote this book over a year ago and I did a lot of things right. (I did mention that there are some really yummy scenes here, yeah? Oh yeah.) Now I need to make it better.
Much of my practical experience for revising this book comes from revising book one for my agent. She is seriously good at getting to the heart of structural problems--while staying focused on the story we both love. But I've also been learning from the day-in, day-out writing experiences.
During November, I committed myself to writing a series of shorts for my Claire Morgane website. Originally I thought I'd include outtakes from the original book, but the outtakes didn't satisfy me. They felt disorienting---not a good introduction to Claire's world at all. So I decided to write all new material from Claire's back story---great stories that would never appear in her books. I consciously departed from traditional short story criteria (protagonist, conflict, complications, resolution) and created my own criteria (immerse readers in the scene sensually, tell readers something significant of Claire's world, provide sufficient framing to encapsulate this moment as a complete snapshot). The shorts went beyond the criteria for vignettes because of the framing and quite a few did end up as traditional stories, but immersion remained my constant goal. As I wrote, I reread some collections I adore: Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and Dubliners by James Joyce. While not trying to imitate what they've done, I kept thinking how all the stories combine to create a larger understanding of the whole.
In the process of writing and reading, I realized the bigger picture of what I was doing---what I continue to do: I'm telling Claire's story. Even more: I'm telling the story of her world through her eyes. Every snapshot, vignette, story, novel---every bit I write changes everything else. Ah! The roots go deeper yet. Even the bits I write and delete change the whole. I see the potential for what she could have been plus all the bits and pieces of what she reveals and does not reveal. The process of telling her story is the process of choosing which secrets to tell and which to leave hidden.
I see more than ever that a novel is a select group of scenes. The number of possible scenes for a character is infinite. One moment can be told in a multitude of ways and really, a good writer can make most of those moments pretty damn fascinating. Add multiple points of view and the possibilities not only blow my mind, but also tempt me away from the story I'm trying to tell.
The structure of the novel saves me from myself.
The exercise is not rocket science:
- Determine the plot through-line.
- Select scenes from the character's life that tell that story.
- Add a subplot--because it's an indulgence I can allow.
- Tie the subplot to the plot.
Writing a novel isn't so different than understanding our own lives. In life, our scenes are messy and complex and one bit connects to others in so many different ways. We play a multitude of roles and our influence ripples to people we don't even know. It's crazy confusing.
And really: Our experience of everyday chaos makes us crave the novel.
Why? Because novelists help us tease out individual aspects of our existence, focus on those things, and make sense of it all---even if just for a moment. We need that.
As readers, we need to participate in the experience of discovering (or creating) meaning. We need clues as we read---bits and pieces that help us to unravel the chaos of life along with the characters.
And all this brings me back to Chapter 16. I know how to fix this book because I understand the bigger picture. I need to let go of some of the earlier scenes (no matter how delightful) because they are not part of the ordered existence of this book. And all those revelations in Chapter 16? I need to sprinkle clues throughout earlier chapters---so the reader has a chance to solve the mysteries of Claire's world alongside her. And a few of those secrets? Well, they'll be kept a little longer.
Oh, but some of those delicious bits I remove? They may end up on the website, where order is secondary to yummy. Novels must have resolution, but websites follow their own rules. There, I put a high priority on yumminess.