Friday, October 16, 2015

Doing the Hard Work of a Novel - Part II

I am halfway through Rich Marcello's 10-week course on novel writing at the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. It's been amazing. Already, I'm in better control of my work. Yes, there may be a few months' more work to do, but I don't begrudge whatever time it may take.

This isn't my favorite outcome; it just is what it is. After working so long on my novel, I wanted to find easy fixes, make it perfect and submit it to potential agents.

That's not going to be the first result of this course, however. And that's alright.

"Emilee's Song" is more than a first novel, and certainly it's not the first fiction I've written. A short story, "Samaritan," won honors in 2010 as the best fiction published during 2009 in Weber: The Contemporary West—a lit journal out of Utah. Call that one beginner's luck, cause none of my other stories have had any success. I get attached to these stories as I'm creating their characters and plots, so when they languish in my computer, unloved and unpublished, I feel bad. But I also realize (1) I can keep learning, and keep improving them, and (2) there is a bit of magical serendipity to finding the right outlet for one's work. I'm not the most persistent of submitters, so if they're eventually published, it will be in spite of me, not because of me. (Rejections hurt, and continuing to submit is critical.)

Anyway, Rich has me working more deeply on the book's strengths and its weaknesses.
Scene structure is the latest biggie. Do each of my scenes, and chapters, add up to movement that advances the story? Do they keep readers interested or entertained? Do they strengthen a character and bring that character more into focus for the reader?
I am using index cards to outline each chapter (not for the first time, but with a different purpose). Which character is relating the scene (my omniscient narrator is deep inside each POV character's mind)? What is the action/change/need for the scene? What's the key idea the reader will take away? Is the scene needed?

To help explore this, I'm reading further (see suggested reading in Part I). I'm using Jack Bickham's "Scene & Structure," Donald Maass's "Writing 21st Century Fiction," Alicia Rasley's "The Power of Point of View" and Janet Burroway's "Writing Fiction." Not word for word, which takes more time than I have, but with a yellow felt pen and an eye toward what's most relevant to my own work.

I'm looking at the quality of the writing. Where it should be rich and fluid, I'm making sure that it is. Dialogue is not my problem; narrative beauty takes more time. Those are the sections a reader will just skip over if they're not written well enough. My job is to keep that from happening.

And, over and over, I look at the book's intro. Is Chapter One good enough? Honestly now: is it? I don't know that yet. I've re-written that muthah countless times—and agents have given me many different reactions to it. I'm still seeking the perfect opening. At some point, my gut will dictate how "Emilee's Song" starts. But that decision awaits a lot of thought.

Lastly, is the drama really there? Is the antagonist big and bad enough? Is she worth redeeming—or should I kill her off? Each little chunk of story that's changed is painful; every time I let go of something I consider if very hard first, unwilling to "kill" my so-called darlings before it's definitely needed.

Point of View, my nemesis last month, is bending to my will. I've limited the number of characters who have a POV (giving the reader access to their thoughts), and rewritten some scenes to transfer that "voice" to a major character's experience.

This is a long process, but I believe I'm in good hands with Rich, for his insights, as well as his willingness to recognize that the final decisions are always up to the author. Our conversations about writing are as insightful as they are instructive, and our debates help me recognize the strengths and weaknesses of my work.

Maybe some people bat their books out in hours and days, but I'm not one of them. It's a process, and a long one, for me. You have to be willing to stick it out.

Ann Connery Frantz spent years in newspaper journalism before switching to freelance writing and editing. Her short story, "Samaritan," won the 2010 Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Award for Fiction. She writes about book clubs and authors for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. Contact her at

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