Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

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Photo Challenge: Structure

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I love to shoot flowers in black and white. Sometimes we get caught up in the colors and forget to look at the intricate structures – as with this large dandelion.

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Or this Rose of Sharon.

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Or this zinnia. In color, it’s a brilliant reddish-pink – but in black and white, we can see the structure of the petals, curled tight in the center, and gently unfolding near the edges.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/structure/

“Are you done with the book yet?”

In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert talks about the nature of the Balinese people. They must know where they are, and where you, are at all times – physically and spiritually. Most important, she says, is the question, “Are you married yet?” In America, this is considered a rude question. In Bali, however. . . well, as Liz puts it, “They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes.” And if you’re not married, the correct answer is “not yet.” “This is a polite way of saying, ‘No,’ while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was at the coffee shop writing, and a friend stopped by. Her first question was, “Are you done with the book yet?”

Any number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, the first one being why did I tell her I was writing a book? I knew she wanted me to say yes. I knew this. And yet, being me, I had to be truthful “Not yet!” I said, smiling. (See? A polite way of saying NO, while indicating that I am working on getting that done just as soon as I can.)

“Well, how much longer?” In her eyes, I could see the question bordering on accusation. You’ve been working on this all summer! How long does it take to write a book? 

“I don’t know. Not long,” I said cheerfully, and she went back to the friends she’d come with, and I went back to my characters.

But it left me pondering a few things. Number one:  books, my friend, are never done. Ask any author. You just sort of reach a point where you stare at it and say, “Screw it.” And then you start sending out the query letters. (And even then, as we all know, it’s STILL not done. Edits and rewrites shall abound.)

Number two:  How long do people think it takes us to write a book? Yes, there are prolific writers like Barbara Cartland and Stephen King who can put fingers to keyboard and type nonstop for hours, until it’s done. The rest of us mere mortals, not so much. The phrase “we’ll get there when we get there!” comes to mind.

And number three:  why must people ask it precisely like that?! Bloody hell, we just don’t know how long it’s going to take!

If you’ve ever encountered a scene like this, with friends, coworkers, family, or complete strangers (yes, those people who think nothing of putting their hands on the stomachs of pregnant women also feel no shame in asking about your deadlines), I feel for you. Been there, done that! I think most writers have been. In fact, I’ve been biting my tongue the last week or so, because a local author’s been at the same coffee shop typing away madly. I know she’s trying to get some writing done before school starts, and I keep wanting to stop by and just commiserate with her – but being a fellow writer, I can’t make myself interrupt her flow. I know she has small children and like me, those are her precious stolen moments with her characters.

The truth is this:  I don’t know how long these rewrites will take. I know what I set out to do daily. I hope I get it done. I’m working in small chunks of writing, stuffed into small windows of time. Those long stretches of uninterrupted writing time are a MYTH, people. A MYTH! Most writers, like me, steal away to a local haunt, order a latte, and if we get a solid hour or two of work done before Real Life comes knocking, we’re lucky. I have to walk in there knowing exactly what I want to accomplish in that time frame, and do my best to make it happen. Even during summers, my life is complicated – running a business, dealing with umpteen animals, errands to run, and, you know, I’d also like to sort of enjoy my summer, too – so I have to squeeze my writing into small bites.

But you know what? Those small chunks of time are working well for me. For starters, they work well with my inability to sit still and do one thing for hours on end. If I can focus for just an hour or so on this one scene, or this transitional between scenes, or these changes, I can get them done and it feels good. I have my to-do list of items, and some days I cross things off and some days I add to it, and some days I do both. Some days, when I go for my walk in the morning, I have an epiphany that makes me sit right down and draft out something; other days, I struggle to put three paragraphs on a page.

In short – I’m writing.

So to answer my friend – No. The book isn’t done yet. But it is getting there. It gets closer every day.

And it feels good, this round of rewrites. Not perfect, not yet; but good.

 

Photo Challenge: Texture

Like most photographers, I’m interested in subject matter – and that subject matter is very rarely texture! It’s hard to capture the feel of something in a one-dimensional format. So finding some photos I thought would work was a bit difficult – hopefully, I’ve managed to convey the texture of the subjects.

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Fall leaf curled against the trunk of a tree.

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Ice on – okay, I don’t know what the plant’s called, but it’s common in Kansas!

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Native limestone – the lions are gutter spouts, by the way! Our old high school.

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And, of course, the juxtaposition of silky-soft and tough and spiky, from the thistle.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/

Photo Challenge: Satisfaction

When I was sick this summer, Maximus Imperius and his brother Tiny kept me company. Unfortunately, I tend to forget how bloody smart they are! One day, Maximus saw me pulling a tissue from the box and . . .

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Afterwards, when I had cleaned up the mess, he just looked downright smug. I think he was quite satisfied with how clever he’d been.

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/satisfaction/

“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

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Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.

 

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.