Advice That Has Done Me No Good Whatsoever

confusion

I just finished writing my new middle grade novel. For the fourth (or possibly fifth) time. This book gave me more trouble than anything I’ve ever written–hard to conceive, even harder to birth, a terrible, difficult child from the very beginning. Now that it has, at long last, arrived, I love it with crazy, unreasonable fierceness. Amnesia is already setting in, though it’ll be a while yet till I forget the many nights it woke me from a sound sleep and set me scrawling bedside notes illegible the next morning. My husband remembers how, more than once, I threw myself onto the nearest flat plane and croaked, “It is killing me.”  The shelf behind my desk has a pile of folders, each about half a foot thick, stuffed with notes and old drafts, folders that could be labeled “Completely Wrong Roads to Go Down”.

If there was any justice in this world, I’d never have to go through all that again. But I’m not optimistic. My process seems doomed to be messy and excruciating, no matter how often I go through it. Even now, as I think about my next book, it’s hard not to plunge right in, ignoring my rational side as it waves red flags and hollers, Not yet! Wait and plan some more, you fool!

Still, I really don’t want the next book to take such a toll. And so I’ve been trying to think what I learned this time. What advice I could give myself, and maybe even others, should anyone be interested. Mostly what I’ve come up with, though, is well-meant stuff that didn’t work for me.

Stuff like:

Challenge yourself to try something new!  Okay! And so I tried to write a mystery. Who doesn’t love a mystery? While I was working on the early drafts, I’d tell kids I was writing a who-done-it set on an island, and I’d feel the excitement ripple through the crowd. I wrote two full drafts—one with a crime so obvious a five year old could solve it, and one with a crime so far-fetched it was ridiculous—before I remembered: plot is hard for me. Much, much harder than character or setting. I suppose it was all well and good to challenge myself to write a book whose success hinged on my greatest weakness, but what it taught me, in the end, was that I couldn’t do it. Yes, the finished book centers on a great mystery. But it’s a mystery of the heart. The kind of mystery that, I slowly, painfully came to realize, means the most to me.

Your characters will lead you places you never meant to go! I still believe this, in part. The problem with where my characters took me in those early drafts was that I didn’t know them well enough. I was traipsing along with acquaintances, people I’d met  only superficially. They had some interesting problems and opinions and were fun to be with (most of the time), but they never let me deep inside them. Or, the truth was, I didn’t work hard enough to understand who they were—what they wanted and needed more than anything and, even more important, why. By draft four, I had this crucial information. I was ready to follow Flor and Cecilia and Jasper, but only because I’d done all the hard work to fully create them.

Just get the story down–don’t worry if the writing stinks!  I can’t do it. I tried and tried, but in the future I won’t. I have to revise as I go. For me, each scene (I hate to say it because it makes me sound like a total prig, but maybe even each sentence) builds on the last one, and till I have it in place, there’s no going forward. If I ever manage to write an outline, so that the middle is not a muddle, maybe I’ll find it possible to skim along from start to finish, then go back and fine tool. But as my mother used to say when we begged for something we saw on TV, Don’t hold your breath.

So, how about you? Any advice that’s helped or confounded?

Tricia’s new middle grade novel, “Moonpenny Island”, will publish with HarperCollins in winter, 2015. 

 

21 Responses to Advice That Has Done Me No Good Whatsoever

  1. Oh Cary, angst is part of the job description, I’m afraid! With each book we’re creating something new, something that’s never existed before–how could, or should, that be easy?

  2. Tricia, I found this post very comforting. I am really struggling with my writing these days and it somehow makes me feel better to know that someone as accomplished as you struggles too. (Though I am sorry for your angst!) I have a fantasy of writing a mystery too, but am also not great at plot! It all seems so easy in the abstract :-) I love your thoughts on getting to know the characters. That’s where that key writing — that won’t actually make it into the piece — comes in. Hmmm, lots to chew on.

  3. OH! I did know that! (I listened to the audio book, but it’s been awhile.) But I didn’t even make the connection when quoting the poem. Wow–it’s even more apt than I thought! :)

  4. Janet, it may sound crazy but I think the mark of a good story is that it can always be made better. Being able to dig deeper, make more connections, proves you have hold of something true and real.

  5. Thanks for the camaraderie, Betsy. And a special thank you for that poem. (Not sure if you know, but I have a middle grade novel called “What Happened on Fox Street”–one of the threads is the quest for a very elusive fox!)

  6. Love standing around this water cooler with you, Greg! I think the touchstone for me was the island setting: that remained the same through every draft. And it’s true we learn something with every new book, even if it’s what doesn’t work for us.