January 29th, 2015

My W is a little lacking...

I’ve started my writing workshop through Grub Street and last week was my first opportunity to bring a piece of writing in to share with the group. Typically, one brings or email copies of one’s piece to other members of the class who then read and makes notes on it at home for discussion the following week. This class is a little different; we bring in copies for the class but instead of getting to take it home and ruminate on it, we read it aloud and discuss it right there in class. And we only get to bring in five pages. I can already tell this will be an adjustment.

The benefit to this on-the-spot kind of workshopping is you get immediate first impressions: this works for me, this confused me, etc. But it’s also a challenge because sometimes it can be hard to get at the root of why something works or doesn’t work in the ten minutes we have to discuss the work. Is it just something is phrased awkwardly? Or is there something fundamentally problematic with the character’s motivation or conflict? Perhaps that’s the point: it makes the writer do the work of sifting through the questions to figure out which speak to larger issues in the novel, which are scene specific, and which are irrelevant without the context of the rest of the piece.

(In classes like this I tend to talk to much as it is, so it’s a little bit of a challenge for me to have to whirl out a thoughtful critique on the spot without just babbling stream-of-consciousness style at the author and sucking up everyone’s time. So clearly a skill I need to develop.)

The positive feedback I received for my five-page scene: “Evocative, loved the descriptions, great tension, really felt pulled into the world.” Constructive critiques: “Was confused about the protagonist’s age; the characters give in too easily; dialogue on the final page falls apart; confusion about the mechanics of going to the Valley [the land of the dead].” But the biggest question was: “What ties the characters to this place and community when their life is so hard? Why don’t they leave?”

BAM: I could immediately tell that the question is bigger than just this scene because it caused a deep pit of anxiety to open in my stomach. Anxiety that usually equals something I know darn well but haven’t been prepared to confront. This question of “why here, why now” helps to clarify the entire first section of the novel and it’s a weakness I’ve known about but haven’t fully addressed. It also hints at bigger ideas: What is the community like? What about this place has weight for these characters? What would it take to drive them out and away? Heavy questions that are somewhat terrifying because I’m still trying to figure the answers out as I’m writing.

Our next assignment for the class is to outline the structure of our novel following Mary Caroll Moore’s W-structure. This is also daunting because, while I have the first descending line of the W and that first turning point (A major character dies! Oh no!), the rest is still obscured by creative fog. I know my characters leave their hometown. I know they have several mysteries to solve which will take them to the site of one or two murders, a place of religious oppression, a place of great (but nefarious) technological innovation, possibly a battlefield, and maybe even back home again. But how these events all align themselves, how the different places affect the characters and their goals, these are things I just don’t know yet. My W is a line, aiming down into a muddled confusion.

The general consensus from fellow writers and my writerly-support system (aka, friends and relatives) is to just keep writing, writing, writing. Get to the end and then look back. I am trying to do this as best I can but when I come across these big, unanswered questions and I feel the urge to explore. I have this strange hope that writing more of the past will make the future events of the story reveal themselves to me like some kind of if-then oracle.

This brings me to a thought I had recently about my present skills: I’m a pretty good writer but still a pretty novice storyteller. I can write a beautiful sentence. I can put many beautiful sentences together. I can render an interesting character or place or conflict. But building a story and conflict and characters that arc beyond ten pages, that’s where I struggle. That’s where I feel like a complete novice, poring over advice from various author blogs, books, and videos on structure and plot. STRUCTURE AND PLOT! IT IS REALLY HARD. I’ve even added a section to my blogroll highlighting resources that I’ve been leaning on heavily for inspiration and motivation. Check it out –>

For those of you keeping score at home, I’m some where between 40,000 and 42,000 words towards the draft of my novel, depending on what floating scenes and freewrites I include. I’ve been hovering at this word count for a while as I write a bunch of things, scrap half of it, then push forward a little more. If you count all of the brainstorming, note taking, research, character notes, etc. it’s closer to 100,000 words already, but most of that isn’t in any kind of novelized form. It’s mostly lists with winning titles like Stuff that (could) happen in the middle and then a bulleted list, such as: Ghosts on a boat? • Meet grandparents… something is revealed? • Jackton has this machine! Did he invent it or steal it?

One of the thing that has really kept me going the past few weeks is trying very hard to go into Scrivener and touch the words at least once a day by writing or reading what I’ve written. Even if it’s just adding or deleting a sentence. It keeps the story current for me, which makes it feel a little less overwhelming and unfamiliar when I sit down to write a big chunk.

I know this is a long road and writing the first draft is only the very very very beginning. Thanks for being here for the ride. Anyone else out there tackling a big overwhelming project? What’s the hardest part for you?

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