J. read through the latest draft of my new novel last week. He gave me a lot of notes. My favourite scrawl in the margin: “next couple of chapters don’t feel right – WTF feeling – not in a good way.”
This note is my favourite because it’s amusing but also because it hits a central nerve. My head bobbed in agreement when I read it. Yep. That damn pesky third act I’ve been struggling to get right.
Having someone else back up your instincts can be really powerful. It can stop you from thinking you can get away with something mediocre and help you see that you have to strap your backpack on again and hit the trail for a few more gruelling kilometres (or, in this case, miles, since the book is set in the States).
And once you’re moving like that, realizations come. For me, they don’t come like math formulas. They don’t come as I’m sitting at my desk, scribbling. They come in bursts of awareness. My subconscious spits them up. Too often at 3 a.m. when I groan and force myself out of bed, knowing that I’ll lose the solution if I don’t.
This happened with This Has Nothing to Do With You. The very last scene I wrote before submitting it to my agent to start sending out was the one that brings Mel right down to her personal bottom – if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about: when drives out to Owain’s cabin for the second time.
There’s more loss, more humiliation, more stretching for her to do.
But, honestly, it took me years to get her to that point because it’s hard to push like that, it’s hard to make bad things happen to the characters that you love. It’s necessary, though. It’s necessary like our own struggles are necessary: that’s how we grow. And good books are about growth, especially character-driven narratives.
In order to make characters grow, we have to push them outside of what J. – with his psychology degree – calls the “circle of certainty,” that perimeter around us that is known and comfortable, where we really, really want to remain. We have to, as they say, “raise the stakes” – especially with characters who might be stuck.
With those characters – the ones who want to stay at the kitchen table sipping tea, doing nothing, denying transformation, digging their heels in – “the action of the novel needs to be about getting unstuck,” writes Donald Maass in The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
Ash, my main character, is a bit stuck in the third act, and what I realize – right now actually, as I’m writing this blog post – is that I’ve swung too far away from her for the sake of the external plot.
In simpler terms: I’ve forgotten to check in with her about the challenges she’s facing, find out how she’s feeling, turn her in directions she might not want to go, prod her forward, try things out, see what happens.
I’ve gotten stuck myself in the logic of the plot outline. And there’s no surer way – for me – to kill a novel than to get weighted down by clever ideas for scenes and forget the character experience to which I’m most closely aligned.
(Incidentally, this is why it’s so important to settle on a point of view and stick with it. Trying to give everyone’s perspective in every scene is like watering down a sauce: you lose the intensity of flavour. All the ingredients might be there but who cares? It doesn’t taste that great. Unless, of course, you’re Tolstoy…)
On Monday, I begin revisions again. This draft – the sixth? (I’ve lost track, as I usually do…) – might take me into places I can’t even imagine right now. I hope it does. I enjoy that experience of bringing a character right up to the precipice to see what they’ll do – I just always forget how fun it is. It takes me a little while to shake off the safety lines and just let myself climb, breathing hard, character in tow. But I’m ready now. Bring it.
If you want to explore your characters, there are still a few spots left in my May (Mother’s Day) and June Deep Character: From People to Plot workshop! Grab a spot!