Elevating Above Your Past

Contrary to popular opinion, some authors don’t spend their lives in the metaphorical equivalent of a closet. They engage in a string of spirited adventures and only later in life decide maybe those high jinks are worth writing down. A rudimentary record of a wild evening is succeeded by more writerly drafts. Dozens of these exploits evolve in this fashion, adding up to hundreds of pages. Yet a read-through of the whole book leads to the conclusion that it is a fun but disorganized mess.

You try to make the writing better—it must be your inadequate narrative style. You try adding more precise details—that will bring readers further inside the story. You add more personal stories for your main character—that’s you, so you know it will feel intimate. But the novel still seems to bounce all over the place.

When you see disparate pieces, your first thought should be: where are the timbers? You need joists that run from one end of the story to the other. The most important of these, the load bearers, are your main characters. Pick out the protagonist from the crowd. How often does she make it into the book? Draw up a chart: she appears on these pages, and they all add up to—what? How long is she absent from the book: chart each of these gaps. If placing the book under her helm would knock out too many great scenes, pick three protagonists. Can you coalesce all of the novel’s action so that only three people tell their stories?

Next, find the lovers and friends of your lead character(s). How long do those relationships last? If people are merely flitting in and out of the book, the reader will never get to know anybody to a depth that matters. Does each major relationship develop as the book goes on? If you have three leads, that may mean the histories of three marriages.

The connection to your real past is becoming blurred. The major characters are becoming less people you knew and more figments of your imagination. In order to give your leads more to do, you may grab an incident that happened to somebody else and assign it to one of your major story lines. It’s still bizarre, isn’t it? You see, that’s what people who live in closets do all the time. They make up stuff. Life is merely fodder for fiction. That’s what you want, you novelist.

Exercise: In this transitional process, you can’t allow any attachments to what really happened. It may be true that two people in your life committed suicide around the same time, but think about what that does in novelistic terms. The one steals from the thunder of the other. So pick: which one was a closer friend to the protagonist?

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
― Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.