Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Getting Out of the Way

Well, folks, I'm chipping away at Novel #1 again, to see if it's a sow's ear or what. The theme of this revision is simple: Get the hell out of the way.

Taking stock, trying to be honest and not fake-humble: I'm okay with building characters, maybe even good at it. And sure, the characters have plausible feelings about each other. And okay, I'm starting to get the hang of my voice. But I have a major weakness--plot.

At least that's how I feel about it today. The story lacks clarity of conflict and/or quest. Readers like the protag, maybe even love her. But they want to fall in love with the story too.

So here's the experiment--assume the weaknesses of plot are all due to the Grand Design I imposed on the project way back in the planning stages. Let go of the plan. Let go of the Rashomon storytelling conceit. No external maps allowed.

I started out about ten (ach! embarrassing!) years ago, thinking I would write a metaphor-driven novel. Readers' response: "I see it has these sustained/recurring themes. But what's it about?"

Not being a plot person, I then set out to turn it into a character-driven novel. Reader response: "These characters are cool. But what's it about?"

So I go back to the manuscript, thinking maybe if the prose was cleaner, the message would be clearer. Trimmed a lot of fat. Reader response: "Nice prose. What's it about?"

Hmmm. All these comments are flattering and encouraging, but also confusing. What, exactly, does that question mean?

My interpretation-of-the-day: these readers are not looking for morals-of-the-story. They want to go for a ride. The work I've already done will help in this capacity, but it may not be enough. And the new shape has to come from inside the story. Sure, I wrote it, but now it's time for me to shut up and listen. Get out of the way of the story that's already there.

I tire easily of discussions on crafting plot. "Raise the stakes!" "Beginning-middle-end!" "It needs an arc!" "Put your characters in real jeopardy!" Maybe this is why I've resisted the notion of plot itself--it feels too much like a screenwriting class rehash. Parroting mottoes, without questioning the authority we've bestowed upon them. It's too gimmicky. It's too formulaic. It makes me grumpy.

But this new (to me) approach, maybe I'll be able to forget what I'm after and find what readers are after. Get out of the way, don't hide the story with language and fluff, don't try to be clever, and don't blindly conform to the Freitag Triangle master plan either. Ask questions instead. Like: why is this night different from other nights? Why now, this character epiphany? What conflagration triggered it? Then, maybe, the characters will drive the bus, and the readers will be more willing to hop on for the duration.

Plus, it will be way, way shorter. That never hurts, when you're pitching a first novel. The thick ones get read last, I've been told.



Blogger Jim said...

It's a gradual and oh-so frustrating process, Anne. But I'm betting that book gets re-written to the point where it's on a shelf at my local bookstore. And when I hand a copy to you to sign, I'll whisper, "Told you so."

9:36 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

Oh, Jim, thanks, you are so kind. It is frustrating, but it's fun too. Patience is the hard part. Whether it ends up in print or not, I'm learning stuff, so it's all good.

10:38 AM  
Blogger GeeNetZie said...

Glad to see you haven't abandoned it my friend. 10 years later and several read drafts and I still believe it belongs out there. Sounds like a cool ride through a new country side ;)

2:21 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Thanks, Gee. And you were one of those very helpful early readers. Have I thanked my readers enough? Slogging through the 140K word version??? THANKS!!! Your critique is among the ones that has encouraged me to pick a protagonist (Izzy, in case you're wondering) and let the story evolve through her heart.

7:09 PM  

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