Monday, April 21, 2008

Learning to Write takes a LONG Time

I started this novel in earnest in Colorado Springs before Anda's first birthday. She is now 8 weeks away from being 5.

I worry that I am beating a dead horse. I worry that I am doing what some of my friends have done to their novels--editing the life and joy out. I certainly have done too much of changing things to fit other people's ideas.

Now the novel, "done" last week but no longer, is 87,000 words long (versus 214,000 for the 2nd draft), and I have about 10,000 words I can add in before anyone even blinks at the length.

I have learned a lot about writing. First and foremost, there are no rules. But, with that in mind, there are most definitely guidelines.

For example, while characters must be believable, they don't necessarily need to be realistic. What I mean by that is just that we want to read about characters that are Characters as well as people on the street. I mean, if the bad guy is going to be a dumb witch, make her DUMB. But also make her believable (ie she doesn't know she's dumb, and dumb doesn't mean less mean and bad).

Query Letters are movie trailers in print. To learn to write a good query letter, read a couple of agent's blogs about the basics (links on the sidebar can point you to a couple), and then watch a BUNCH of movie trailers.

If it takes a lot to explain the motivations or reasons for an action, there's something wrong in the story (plot, characters, or whatever). When they say every movement in a story needs a motivation, it doesn't mean stretch really far to explain it. The motivation should be clear and obvious to the reader in general.

Don't talk too much--trust your reader.

Don't be afraid to say enough to make it work. Too little is not better than too much.

Readers want to be able to grasp everything the first time through--plot, characters, etc. It's great if there are layers and depth and ideas to explore, and ideally a book should be able to be read with satisfaction many times. But if someone can't grasp it the first time (which is my problem--I can think of all kinds of complexities that are delightful to me, but confusing to others even though it's clear as day in my mind), they aren't going to go back for another try. Or recommend it to others.

While you don't want to write something cliche, there is a great deal in life that constitutes the shared experiences of being human. If you avoid dealing with those things for fear of being cliche, you miss the chance for your reader to connect with your character. Yes a million women have longed for love, and a million authors have written about it. But we still read it because it is one of those shared experiences. I have thought of this in terms of giving birth and raising a baby--it is an incredible, powerful, amazingly unique experience. That a majority of adult women in the world have gone through. To put it another way, there's a reason so so many authors have used the phrase, "Her heart pounded."

As you know if you've read over the years I've been blogging, I have STRUGGLED with the first chapter of my novel. I've rewritten the first five pages five times for every full draft.

I got done with this draft, left it alone for a week intending to leave it for 2 months, and felt compelled to go back and re-read. So I started at the beginning with the end clearly in mind, and discovered that, to my horror, they didn't match! Not only that, the beginning was still BORING. Not just because I've read it before. It just was, all of its own accord. Dreadfully boring.
That night, I had a dream that I was turning a quilt edge for binding, and I had come all around back to that first corner, and it was all out of line. I kept trying to turn the edge under on one side, but that would throw all the folds out of line on the other, and no matter what I did, it was awful. I got more and more frustrated in the dream because I couldn't fix "this story" even though I had a quilt in my hands. I woke up and said to myself, "Duh. I just needed to take that corner all apart and re-fold it from scratch. Obviously something is puckered or mucked up inside that is irredeemable simply by holding and pinning.

So I deleted the prologue, introduction, and first five pages and started from scratch.

And Really Liked how they came out--easy, relaxed, to the point, natural, and fitting in tone and style with the new draft, in which I employed all my new writing skills (so the writing is much more interesting to read).

I gave it to Tim, and he pointed out to me all the places it failed. That's why I like him to read my stuff. He just says, "It's not there yet. Here's where I'm getting hung up...." and he KNOWS.

We talked for a long time, and he said, "If a query is like a movie trailer, the first chapter has to be like the song-and-dance number at the beginning of every Disney movie, before the character's parents die." He talked me through it and it was like a light came on in my head. I already knew the concept--the first few pages have to introduce the characters, setting, and problem. But Disney movies do it well, over and over with different stories, and in a straightforward, easy to pick apart way. Lots of examples of application of the same formula--and, going back to that cliche thing--it's a formula that works.

So I went back to the text and realized the problem. It was written when the main character was 16 and the intended audience was 13. But the new draft has the main character 18-19 and the audience the same. Not only does an 18 year old have a different learning curve and thought process than a 16 year old, the 13 year old readers need more spelled out to them than the 18 year olds do. Further, I realized the character's development had changed drastically over the million drafts, and the original "comic throughline" I'd drafted to guide character development (see sidebar for links to that) was completely out of the story.

So I went back to the beginning and opened the comic throughline and started over with "What does the character think she wants and what does she really want?"

To my great relief, the answers were already built into the story. I had written them without knowing it--and in a nice, fleshed out kind of way that I really like.

So that solved the first chapter problem, and that old "how do I make this compelling" problem. The first chapter needs to establish the starting point for the character development that's already happened in the story.

So now I can get started again!


Anonymous said...

One of the best books I've read is "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott. It is about the writing life and is written in a humourous way. It has helped me with writing might be worth a look as she addresses some of common struggles. When do you feel your book will be out there for readers?

Becca said...

I'm doing some revisions for an agent right now. If she likes it and picks me up (and I like her and sign with her), then I suspect we'd be looking at 3 years (1 year to sell it, 2 from there to publication).

I will look up Anne Lamott. Thanks for the tip!