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"Wow. What a great story that reveals absolutely nothing."

                                Max Smart to Agent 99 in the new Get Smart movie

This is going to be a seat-of-the-pants kind of posting today. I spent last week assisting at the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop in Honesdale, PA, and have barely had the time to collect my thoughts since arriving home. For the best possible reason, too: my head is crammed with the invaluable information that Carolyn Coman and Jane Resh Thomas passed along to eight hard-working and talented attendees during the week. It's hard to know where to begin in passing along some of that to anyone reading this.

One thing that floats to the top is how easy it is to set out to write a certain story and end up not doing what we set out to. It's so easy to become bogged down in trying to create a memorable plot, while sketching an empathetic character who speaks with realistic dialogue that works as hard as dialogue needs to in portraying that character while moving the plot along and helping create secondary characters. To say nothing of keeping an eye on that narrative arc and the underlying emotional arc while seeing to it that both arcs are pulling their weight through a strong middle, right up to a satisfying and exciting climax, then gently descending to an inevitable, yet surprising, ending.

It's a marvel any of us has the courage to try.

The difference between critiquing an entire novel manuscript and helping hone the first 20 pages cannot be underestimated. When it is impossible to know where the story is meant to be going, it's difficult to know whether the writer has started out on the right path. If you were to say to me, "I'm trying to get to New York City. Am I right to be taking Route 66 out of Phoenix?" I'd know what to to say. But to comment on a nice sketch of a young boy and his distant father in an opening chapter when the story's really about the middle daughter who'd rather drive a tractor than sew a dress, is a daunting task. So much of what one might say will be irrelevant to the story.

This week, I'll attempt to give you some of the insights on approaching an entire novel in your revision that the group discussed in Honesdale. But what I look most forward to doing is showing you the results of the revision of two of the attendees. One is an edgy YA story, difficult to tell, tough to read. The other is a middle grade historical book. The changes made to each during revision in small cabins on the side of a hill in a peaceful place were impressive and instructive way beyond all the words any teacher might say. Rather than tell you all about them, I'll put them here tomorrow and on Thursday and let you see for yourselves.

Let me simply say that a very good place to start, once you've put your manuscript in a drawer or gone away for a good piece of time, is to ask yourself, after you've re-read it with a (hopefully) detached eye: "What's the point? What, in heaven's name, am I trying to say?"

P.S. One of these days, I'll learn how to cut and paste links in here, so what I write is more fun to read. For now, I'm knocking my head against the wall trying to change the picture.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 23rd, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this report. Can't wait to read your next installment, Stepahnie. The Highlights Whole Novel Workshop is so amazing and what an opportunity to work with writers like Jane Resh Thomas and Carolyn Coman!
Jun. 24th, 2008 02:30 am (UTC)
I love what you had to say about stopping and asking yourself, "What am I trying to say here?"

I remember reading once somewhere (wow, so specific) that you should write your MC's goal on a sticky note and paste it above your computer. Any time your story veers from his or her goal, get back on track.

Can't wait to reflect on what's next.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )