Mentor Monday: The Final Scenes

            

I’m in the home stretch on my revisions.
When I last met with Claudia, we decided my final chapter would be
a kaleidoscope of three small scenes.
So that’s what I’m working on this week.

I want my scenes to convey this kind of intricacy and balance:


(image from http://www.morguefile.com)

But if I don’t immediately get the scenes just right,
I can treat them like a kaleidoscope and make a slight adjustment,
and maybe that new view will be just what I’m looking for.
              

Mentor Monday: Trusting My Gut

    

I heard back from Claudia yesterday on the two chapters I sent last week.
She had much good to say about the stuff that worked,
and offered a couple excellent points about places I needed to lay a little groundwork.

She also had some thoughts on how to handle a certain plot point.
I’m mulling over her suggestion, taking notes in my trusty notebook as I unravel my thoughts.
So far I’m thinking I need/want to go with my initial idea for this story line
but am mindful that part of me might be rebelling against outside influence.

The thing is, Claudia has had lots and lots of good ideas during this revision process.
I’ll have an idea and she’ll tweak it just a tiny bit to make it an even better idea.
I’m thrilled that my story is so much stronger than before
but I’ve also had a few insecure moments in which I wonder if the improvements are because of her or me.

I’ve never worked one-on-one before to revise an entire manuscript
and am wondering if anyone else has experienced any of these feelings.
Have you ever worried your story is better only because of someone’s input?
Or have I just gone out and invented a whole new brand of writerly neurosis?
               

Mentor Monday: Looking back in order to move ahead

             

I’ve revised about two-thirds of my manuscript
and when I met with Claudia last week,
she cautioned me that in the final third
I must deliver on the tension developed thus far.

She’s right, of course.

But when you’ve ripped up your story’s floorboards
and knocked down a bunch of its walls,
it’s a bit overwhelming to figure out how to construct the remaining pieces.
Especially when you’re not entirely sure what pieces will be there.

But Claudia has a great method for writing the second half of your book:
Go back to the first half to see what’s there,and then use those elements in the latter part.

Stuff like:

  • The nosy neighbor down the street
  • The red and white twirly skirt
  • The dripping faucet
  • The neglected lawn
  • Best friend’s activist Grandma
  • The tiny photo album

These final chapters will require lots of new writing,
but at this point I’m only taking notes.
Lots of notes.

My middle mind had me include those elements for a reason,
and I trust that in time I will see how to construct a satisfying ending.

But sometimes you have to look back in order to move ahead.
                 

Mentor Monday: Storytelling

           

My revisions are due to Claudia in two days
and I’ve still got lots to do.
I’m cutting some stuff I hope to use later,
adding new material to make the story flow,
and moving scenes around.

Claudia said during our last meeting,
"I think I’m better at structure [than you]."

I had to laugh because this revision process
has proved something I already suspected:
while I’m a very good writer (meaning, I use words well),
I have to work harder to be a good storyteller.

I have to consciously think about structure and pace
so that I do my characters justice in the way I let their stories unfold.

However.

I am learning.
All this work with Claudia is helping me think 
about my writing in a whole new way,
and I’m confident the lessons I’m learning while
revising CLOSE TO HOME
are lessons I will carry with me on every book to come.

And that’s what being a writer is all about:
bringing your always-improving game with you to each and every story.
                 

Mentor Monday: De-Blurring a Story/Picture

    


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So I’m at about the halfway mark in my revisions
and am very pleased with the changes I’ve made.
I met with Claudia the day before I left for Florida
and went over the chapters I’d revised plus
mapped out a strategy for the next chapters.

Claudia said many nice things about my work
and pumped up my enthusiasm for pushing ahead.

I took my trusty notebook and pages on the plane the next day,
and worked and worked from those notes
(plus had a delicious margarita with my pb & j sandwich).

And I realized something:
I wasn’t wrong to love CLOSE TO HOME as it was written before;
it’s a great story with complex characters.
I really had created a good picture.
The problem was, the picture was slightly off.
Blurry and confusing in places.
But with Claudia’s help, I’m bringing the picture/story into focus.

So my big epiphany is that we should never say our manuscripts suck
(I’ve said that and other awful things, and am going to try hard to never say such things again).
The truth is, when you write a book, you’ve created a unique word picture.
A picture that no one else in the whole wide world could paint.
And while it is possibly true that you could have employed better word choice,
or maybe used those same words in a different order,
or given more thought to how and when your characters speak their words,
that stuff is all fixable.

Writing novels isn’t like photography.
If part of our stories seem out of focus,
we can go back in there to bring clarity.

I’m really, really glad I didn’t give up on CLOSE TO HOME.
          

Mentor Monday: Deadlines

           

As I revise CLOSE TO HOME with Claudia’s help,
I’m grateful for her insights and  encouragement,
But I’ve realized something else this mentor program gives me:
deadlines.

I’ve mentioned my aversion to adding new scenes.
My natural inclination in these situations is to
delay,
dawdle,
and defer.

I can be a world-class procrastinator.

But procrastination isn’t a great game plan for the mentor program.
I’m now accountable to Claudia Mills.
I’m not saying Claudia gives off this vibe:

                                                          © 2010 Tracy Abell

However, I did make an agreement with her to turn in a certain number
of chapters by this Wednesday.
And I don’t want to disappoint her.
Or ruffle her feathers.

She’s kind
but she’s also determined.

It’s best to honor our agreement.

                                                      © 2010 Tracy Abell

Mentor Monday: Characterization

     

After my initial meeting with my mentor, Claudia Mills,
I had to make a decision about my main character.
I needed to decide how "mean and rotten" I wanted her to be.

Claudia pointed out that as long as the reader
has a sense of the character’s pain,
they will accept less-than-loving attitudes and behaviors.

Some of the actions I brainstormed for my main character
were really and truly rotten.
Those actions would undoubtedly ramp up the story’s conflict
and create huge potential for dramatic pay-off.

I thought and thought about this girl and what she was about.

Then I read a middle-grade novel that’s received lots of buzz and an award.
The main character is mean.
Really mean.
And even though the author did reveal the main character’s pain,
the emotional scale felt way out of balance.
That character’s pain wasn’t enough for me
and I had no sympathy for her.
In fact, I was a wee bit pissed off when I finished that book.

Obviously, there are many, many people who love it.
I’m just one reader.
But that book helped me decide:
I do not want CLOSE TO HOME told in the voice of a mean and rotten character.

Will my main character be perfect?
Absolutely not.
Will she say and do some bad things?
Absolutely.

My job is to to do right by this character,
and I’m going to work hard to find the perfect balance for the emotional scale.
               

Mentor Monday: Emotional Ping-Pong

       

Last week I promised to share some insights
from my mentor, Claudia Mills.

Claudia is helping me revise a middle-grade novel
about two girls, one homeless and the other, not.

The first time I met with Claudia, she praised my
"wonderful sense of the shifting terrain of interpersonal
dynamics and psychological nuance."

But, it turns out my sensitivity and attunement to my characters
is also the main stumbling block in my story.

Claudia went on to write in her comments:
"It’s that you are SO good at psychological nuance that I sometimes
felt as if I were watching a ping-pong match . . . feelings were shifting
back and forth with such frequency that I lost sense of where
we were in the overall shape of the story."

She was absolutely right.
And I have a feeling some of my earlier readers had that same issue
(whether or not they were able to articulate it that way).

So that’s what I worked on in my opening chapters
(plus some other issues regarding initial conflict).
I focused on the psychological dynamics in each scene,
watching for the ping-pong effect.
I wanted to build tension in each of my story’s relationships.

I worked and worked.
Last week I met with Claudia to discuss the revisions.

While I nailed the revisions of the initial conflicts,
it turns out I’d written some more emotional ping-pong.

I was frustrated with myself,
and as we talked, I wondered if I’d ever fully grasp what she was saying.
I mean, I’m a hyper-sensitive person and I feel lots of emotions all the time;
I wasn’t sure if I could write characters any other way.

And then Claudia said this:
Your task is to give yourself room to build.

Cue the epiphany music!

I cannot write scenes in which characters’ feelings
jump all over the spectrum from one moment to the next.
Even though they might feel that way inside,
I can only allow their emotions to move incrementally within each scene
so that there’s somewhere for them to go as the story progresses.

For example, if I write a character expressing full-blown anger
toward another character in the opening chapters,
there’s not a lot of room to maneuver the emotions of their relationship.

I need room to build.
It’s as simple as that.
            

(This was taken yesterday afternoon and somehow the imagery feels right for this post). © 2010 Tracy Abell