I've learned a thing or two since the last novel. Mostly about craft, some about faith. It's my hope that this assuredness will help the process move along a bit faster this time. You may recall the first chapter in TETHERED took me six months. Yes, that's right, six months.
So what have I learned? It's important to listen to my protagonist for months before I commit a single word to paper. Like any other relationship, it takes time to learn about the person. The protag from my current WIP introduced himself months ago. We exchanged pleasantries and as we became more familiar with each other, he started sharing aspects of his life. I knew this time around not to rush him, that he'd just pull back, afraid of my urgency. He's a lifelong birder; he has a congenital syndrome that he almost never speaks of (I noticed it the first time he introduced himself, but was too polite to say anything); and people tend to underestimate just how bright and capable he is, him most of all.
Does this sound strange? It is. But there's a point to be made. Before a word is on the page, a writer needs to know the main theme of her work and she must know her protagonist well enough at the outset to design the threads to showcase that theme. His hobbies, fears, his greatest desire are all catalysts for the main -- and some of the minor -- themes.
Okay, something less elusive now. Setting. I love to create setting. There are times when it's necessary to be direct when describing place and time: "Inside the efficiency apartment, it’s the expected scene: scraps of paper and unopened bills littering every surface; half-eaten plates and cartons of food forming a banquet across the one counter; tattered furniture and a filthy white sheet tacked over a pair of windows." Other times, it works better to slip it in, give the readers enough hints, but leave them to wonder a bit: "It was a mid-September blue sky – cerulean Principal McDaniels might have called it – ripe with the sort of clouds the children would have wondered at during recess..." This sentence tells you right off the bat that the protagonist is at a school though without saying so. Setting can do something else. What do those sentences tell you about characters? The first hints broadly that the person who lives in that apartment is probably poor, damaged in some way, desperate. The second sentence tells you that the character is probably someone who enjoys the simple things in life -- sunny days, a child's laughter -- but feels that Principal McDaniels is a bit pretentious. It also tells the reader the protag knows the uncommon word cerulean. Hmmmm...
Another lesson I learned is the value of having a map. Reading the comments section of Lisa's post yesterday made me realize just how many people wing it. Absolutely terrifying. I do to a certain extent, but I must know where to begin and end; those first and last sentences never change no matter the number of drafts. I also have to know the crucial plot points along the way. Think of them as landmarks on a map. I may not know the names of the streets, how many miles in-between, but I do know to take a right at the pink doughnut shop and that the exterminator's office (you know the one with the giant cockroach on the roof?) will be just past the bridge. I think plotting comes back to the main theme. If you know what that is, you know what message you're trying to convey and the impression you're trying to leave your readers.
Probably the most important lesson I've learned is to trust my characters. Whenever I panic, say page 100 and then again at 150, I let them lead me. They know where to go and how to get me there. It is their story.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008