A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about how I hadn’t had time to write, wouldn’t have time for the foreseeable future, and was determined not to feel too guilty. Now, finally, I’m getting back to my manuscript a little bit at a time, and I’ve realized some things.
1.) Writing is like exercising; it’s harder to force yourself to do it when you’re out of the habit, and you have to build your endurance back up.
In my early-to-mid twenties, I ran a few marathons. I now find this fact hard to believe, but I have the finisher’s medals in a box somewhere to prove it. Anyway, I remember feeling pretty indignant when I did my first training run for the second marathon. How was it possible that I could not run three miles? I’d run 26.2 only months before! With a hurt Achilles tendon! They gave me one of those snazzy aluminum blankets at the end to put over my shoulders! It was a big deal!
But none of that seemed to matter after I’d taken some time off. Luckily, my body and brain knew deep down that they were capable of running for an inordinately long time, since they’d done it before, so I was able to get back into shape faster than I had the first time around. I’m hoping the same goes for writing.
2.) It’s one thing to keep your conscious mind from feeling guilty for not being as productive as usual and another thing to make sure your subconscious gets the message. The other night I dreamed that I hadn’t actually graduated from my MFA program yet, and it was time for workshop, but I hadn’t submitted anything or critiqued any of anyone else’s pieces. It was terrible.
3.) I need to increase the “Oh no, don’t do that!” factor in my novel. I had this epiphany while I was reading Nice and Mean by fellow VCFA grad and teacher Jess Leader. I’d read and enjoyed the book a couple of years ago, but I was reading it again to prepare for a mini course on middle school girl culture that I’m co-leading in March, during which a group of students will read the book and Skype with Jess.
I re-read Nice and Mean in a night, and part of what compelled me to finish so quickly was that each of the two first-person narrators does something that made me, as a reader, think, “No! This isn’t going to work out! There’s going to be trouble for you!” One of the narrators, Marina, hatches an ill-advised plan to get revenge on a friend who keeps undermining her and generally driving her crazy, and the other, Sachi, keeps a secret from her parents.
I knew how things worked out in the end of the book, but I didn’t remember the details, and I experienced that delicious internal conflict of both wanting to look away from the disastrous results of not-very-wise decisions and needing to read on to know that the characters would be okay. One important element of an effective “Oh no, don’t do that!” factor, I think, is that the reader should see why the character is behaving as she is and sympathize with—or at least understand—her motivations. Even though Marina’s revenge plan is cruel, for instance, I felt her frustration with her friend and knew that she wanted to prove her own worth, so rather than being alienated by her “mean girl” behavior, I found it captivating. I felt exasperated with her and protective of her, all at the same time.
In the first full draft of my novel, I already had my main character make a questionable decision to sell out a new friend, but now I think that if I change the order of some scenes so that the decision comes a bit later, and and if I play up certain dynamics, I might be able to induce that unpleasant-but-engrossing “No, don’t do it!” sensation.
4.) It can take a long, long time to figure out a character. I’d always thought character development was my strong point, because I tend to see a character first and then the plot comes later. Like, much later. But when I looked back at the revisions I’d done on my novel this fall, I realized that I have to rethink some core things about my protagonist. When I started revising in October, I made changes to a couple of secondary characters to increase conflict and tension. I see now that changing these secondary characters changes some of my protagonist’s formative experiences, and that impacts her outlook and her motivations in subtle but definite ways.
It’s possible that I’m just delaying getting back to the actual hard work of revising scenes because that feels very daunting right now (see number 1). But I think I’m actually working through things that tangled me up before. And I really couldn’t figure out these dynamics earlier—it took pushing through a draft, trying to fix a problem, and then seeing how the solution impacted elements that had seemed like they were working.
I don’t know about you other writers out there, but I both love and fear this process of figuring out how to make a novel work. I love the puzzle of troubleshooting problems, but I am also sort of terrified by how unwieldy and out-of-focus the whole puzzle sometimes feels.
But just when I’m feeling especially overwhelmed, I read a wonderful book or see a beautiful movie or play and am inspired to keep on trying. In fact, I’d better get back to trying now, so my subconscious won’t deliver more guilt-nightmares tonight.