12.19.2019

Homeworking

I see the pattern over and over again. A debut novel imparts: what a character says, does (such as “turn” or “stare”), and occasionally what she thinks about something that has just happened. In other words, all of the writing is taking place on the surface. You know your character is literally going through the motions. You want to go deeper. You want to write out those wonderful strings of thoughts as in those novels you love to read. So why can’t you?

As a writer, this question bedeviled me for years. I would try to get into a flow. I would blank out every single thought in my head so that I could concentrate. The string wouldn’t last for long, though, maybe a paragraph, and when I edited the piece later, half of it would come out because the stuff was so ordinary.

Yet after I began editing, the answer came to me. I would ask authors to elaborate on a point in order to fill out a character, and what I got back was often only a few precise sentences. The author would get to the point I requested and knock it out. Okay, problem solved, let’s move on. Yet what was he supposed to be moving on to? Two sentences didn’t let me inside the character. In other words, he was so busy moving on to the next accomplishment, he hadn’t fully inhabited the space that he could have brought to life.

If you want to create a thought string, you need to concentrate, sure. Yet you can also compile all of the relevant data that informs that thought string. Let’s say you’re a girl on the docks of New York City in 1850 and you see a magnificent clipper ship approaching from the tip of Manhattan. What, pray tell, does a clipper ship look like? Get those facts in hand first. You should know the different parts of the boat, at least as much as that girl knows. Now let’s consider the time of day. Have you ever watched a yacht on a sparkling summer afternoon? How did that make you feel? How about on a day with gathering storm clouds? Were you worried for the skipper? Did you think he was reckless being out there?

Now let’s look at another aspect. In that era what did a clipper ship represent? It was a great boat that traveled to all different ports in the world. What ports would that girl like to visit? What does she know about those ports, and how does she imagine she would fit in to those scenes? Does she want to be set free?

You see, the problem isn’t concentrating as much as you’re not amassing the facts in which to be immersed. You can do that. And the more you do, the more fluent you will become in running off a wonderful skein.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and look for interesting spots where you could elaborate. Write down your initial impressions of the object. Now dig deeper. Research that object; find out the facts beyond your first impressions. Try to list 10 different facts. Now write down different tangents that could develop from these facts, related to your chosen characters. Now start to write, with all those facts in your head that you can grab at will.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” 
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine






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