Thursday, August 21, 2008

A New House

Lynne is away on vacation, but here's one of our favorites of hers:

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I've never built a house, but I took a wonderful course on building a novel. When I was deep in to a revision of Life Without Summer, I took a course on story construction offered through Grub Street by the smart and talented Stace Budzko. It helped me then, but how was I to know that eight months later, as I delved into crafting my next novel, that things he taught me would flood into my mind with new relevancy.

The elements of our stories are not unlike those of a house. What we know about our characters--how they behave and misbehave--their desires, wants and needs are as important to the writer as the windows that allow light into the living room. Plot can be seen as the opening and closing of doors. Voice--the house's architectural style.

Having built and sold one novel already, I know that building a good foundation is critical to the novel's ability to stand out in the marketplace. For me, settling on point of view is an important first step in creating the right structure, telling the right story. Whose story is it? Which character(s) have the most to gain and the most to lose given the situations and complications I've chosen to write about? When I find the heart of the story, I know it. I love writing in two voices, so for me there is often more than one heart to consider.

At every stage of novel building it's important to use quality goods. For a writer, the raw materials are words. This time I'm finding it even easier to lay down the structure with care, partly because the more I write the more I fall in love with words. Though in truth, I'm confident, because I trust that even when a house is done, there is nothing wrong with moving a little furniture or hanging new curtains. Even brothers and sisters have been known to change rooms, and parents know when it's time to add a room over the garage.

Perhaps the single most valuable lesson I learned from Stace during that weekend in April relates to setting. I will be forever grateful to him for opening my eyes to the idea that setting can be compelling, not merely a backdrop "where characters do their thing". Whether you imagine the places in your novel as pleasing, forbidding or somewhere in between, setting embodies all the places that influence the way your characters see the world and how they respond to it.

Andre Dubus once said, "We enter the fictional world through memory". During my weekend course, Stace urged me to take every opportunity to pry, eavesdrop, stare, and otherwise gather the material I'd need to build a story. Little did he know that the perspectives he offered, I would remember, serving me well in my building projects down the road.

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