Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell, is a revolutionary book to many of us who are writing novels. It's funny how many times I've run into someone who finds it as inspiring as I have: I told Lois about it, she finished it before me and urged me to hurry up! Finish it! Then my sister-in-law, Laura, who has had a novel living in her head for years, picked it up and was amazed at how easy plotting became for her! For me, ever the random writer, it's provided me with a real structure that I can depend on. At the same time, Bell hasn't given me a set of rigid rules. I hate rigid rules when it comes to a creative process. Oxymoronic.

His book is also full of examples of authors and how they use certain techniques. I'm constantly saying, "Ohhhh, I see that!"

At the end of every chapter, he has exercises to do. Usually I just roll my eyes and ignore this kind of thing. But these exercises are so practical I want to do them, for the good of my novel.

So, get this book! Quick, before they're all gone!

In the Flesh

Writing groups are wonderful for convicting you of your writerly sin. You go along, thinking everything is A-OK, and then someone says something, the smallest little question, and it makes you think, hmmmm. I wonder ....

Lois did that for me the last time I was convicted of my writerly sin. It wasn't what Lois said -- it was what I read, and how my reading fell flat. And we both knew it. What was my sin? I broke the commandment of Thou shalt know thy characters inside and out.

Unfortunately, this is not one that Lois ever breaks. She has notebook upon notebook of character notes. (I'm exaggerating out of jealousy) When I presented my chapter on Delilah to her (Billie was absent on the night in question), at the end of the reading it was obvious that this Delilah was nowhere near the Delilah who had been the secondary character in my story. It was Delilah's turn to shine, and she was dull, dull, dull. Not what I'd intended in this character.

I drove home that night knowing I'd wasted hours and paper. What was the deal? Who was that goody two shoes I'd written a whole chapter about? And if I couldn't answer that question, who on earth could?

That was disturbing.

Two years, Teresa. Two years, and you don't know this character? What kind of a writer are you, anyway? (intuitive, I answered myself, not analytical) What's more, I started going down a list of my major characters, and there were two more I was drawing a blank on when I asked myself, what's their story? What are they like?

The next day I sat down with my laptop and thought, I'm not going anywhere until Delilah is grittier.

So, I thought about her behavior, all the ways she's reacted to my major character, Angeline. What makes her such a good person? Why is she SOOOOOOOO good? She is unfailingly modest, she's in love with a missionary, she's loving, compassionate, generous, etc., etc., etc.

So what's up with that?

Sometimes, when people are extreme in their behavior, they are reacting to something in their past.

So I began to think of what was opposite of her behavior, and presto! My fingers started flying over the keyboard. Delilah's backstory now is gritty but believable, and oh so common no matter what the century.

It's amazing how the story changes when you actually get to know your characters.

Semi-Take off!

I decided it was time to post excerpts of my novel. I will post two excerpts from different places in the story, neither one the beginning. I'd love to hear feedback, but please know that these are still very much works in progress. I hope to be finished with the book in early 2010.

The setting for the novel is 1838, western North Carolina

Set-up for Excerpt 1: Angeline, the main character, is at a party given in her honor at her father's home. She is new to this community, and new to her father's home.

Excerpt 1

I walked aimlessly away from the crowd. The noise of the music was getting on my nerves, and I needed to hear the sounds of nature. I needed to sort my thoughts after the encounter with Sam.

The log that I had sat on earlier was vacant and situated in a dark corner where I would go unnoticed. Gratefully I sank down, resting my weary feet. These delicate slippers were beautiful, but they were rubbing nasty blisters on my little toes. I eased them off one at a time and stretched my stockinged feet out in front of me.

The stars blinked above in an inky sky. Mama and I had always studied the dark skies together, and seeing them now, without her, made my heart ache. Was she looking at the same stars? Was she lonely for me? She understood me, like no one here did. But I never fully realized it until I left her.

The breeze was chilly, and I rubbed my arms, hesitant to leave my hiding place to retrieve a shawl from my bedroom. Just as I was reaching for my shoes, I heard Grandmother’s voice not very far away. I turned my head and listened, frowning as I heard my name.

“Oh, yes, she’s a dear girl. Will decided to adopt her . . . . you know he’s always considered himself an orphan since his father was killed so tragically before he was born . . . . he’s so soft-hearted towards orphans.”

What was she talking about? My stomach felt queasy.

A low pitched male voice said, “Well, Temperance, beg pardon, but we’d heard that she was Will’s illegitimate child.”

Who was Grandmother talking to? I leaned forward, trying not to roll the log, and spotted her through the foliage in a cluster of men and women several yards away. I could see her face, her eyes darting sharply from one person to another as they spoke. Her eyebrows were arched, her mouth pursed.

“Yes, beg pardon, Temperance, but a love child with a Cherokee woman is what folks is saying.” This input was made by the woman who stood with her back to me, her straw bonnet bobbing up and down with each shrill word.

Grandmother’s laughter rang out, unfamiliar and false. “How ridiculous. Will is a good Christian man. He would never do such an immoral thing. And Angeline – she doesn’t have a drop of Cherokee in her. She is white through and through.”

I felt my stomach lurch, and I covered my mouth. So that’s how Grandmother was presenting me to her friends. I was an orphaned white child. Despite her chilly reception, and the conversation I’d overheard between her and Papa, I thought she had accepted me for who I was.

“I saw her dancing with Sam Sherrill,” another man said. “He looked mighty taken with her. She’s a beauty.”

Though tears clouded my view, I held my breath to hear what she would say.

After a slight hesitation, Grandmother inclined her head and smiled, her voice dripping with condescension. “Well, Sam is a very kind young man.”

My thoughts swirled angrily. Kind young man? Yes, he would have to be a kind-hearted soul to want to dance with your half-breed granddaughter.

Set up for Excerpt 2: Angeline has survived a brutal rape after being captured by soldiers who are rounding up Cherokees for the Indian Removal (later known as the Trail of Tears).

Excerpt 2

A firm hand grabbed my hair and jerked my head out of the water. I came up, gasping and sputtering.

“Hey, now, ain’t nothin’ worth that.”

I wrenched my hair out of his grasp and scooted away from the soldier. “Get away from me!”

He held up his hands in surrender. “I ain’t gonna do nothin’ to you.”

I grabbed my dress from the bank to cover myself and scowled up at him. His face wasn’t familiar. He was younger, much closer to my age than the three men who had attacked me. This man had a thin, long face, brown mournful eyes which regarded me warily, and a ragged mustache that was barely more than peach fuzz on his upper lip. He was so lean his pale cheeks were hollow.

His hands, now slowly descending to his side, were blood-stained.

He followed my gaze, and brought them, palm up, for my inspection. “I was dressin’ the bear. We killed it, ’member?” He turned and thrust his hands into the water, rubbing them together while scarlet billows stained the clear water.

I blinked hard and rose on shaky legs, still gripping the dress to hide my body. He looked over his shoulder.

“Git yer dress on, miss.”

I squinted at him, humiliation filling me as I squatted behind a rhododendron bush. My modesty was needless; he had seen me. My eyes flooded with angry tears as I stepped into my shift, then made my trembling fingers work the hook and eye closures on the front of my dress – but it was no use. My dress was tattered. Pieces of my bodice yawned open, looking as surprised and wounded as I felt. I held them, pieces in each hand, marveling at how quickly it had all happened. I held them over my chest and stood very still. Maybe if I held them there long enough, hard enough. . . .

I heard voices from over the ridge, and lifted my head to listen more keenly. It was them. And Tamar. Everything registered then: the smell of food that had wafted down to me, their raucous voices and hers, calm. I’d been hearing these things, smelling meat, in the back of my mind, not conscious of anything except what was before me: my trembling fingers and taking one ragged breath at a time. Was it possible that common life went on around me? Or had they made Tamar suffer the same way I had?

I stood and craned my neck, but saw nothing beyond the bushes at the top of the ridge. The pieces of my bodice fell away, and I stood, exposed and betrayed by my tattered dress.

My arms across my chest, I came out from my shelter, and stepped tentatively toward the skinny soldier. “Wh-where are those men?”

The man shook his hands dry, then finished the job on his uniform trousers. He gestured with his head toward the camp. He looked at me with an expression I couldn’t read, which made my heart beat fast. I took a step back, watching him. He pursed his lips, sighed. He put his hands on his knees and stood, watching me the whole time.

“Don’t make me chase you, now,” he said, his voice lower than before. He walked toward me, his hat in his hand.

I shook my head, my breath coming in pants. My skirt tangled in my legs as I took quick backward steps, almost tripping before I turned and ran. I shrieked as I felt his bony hand close around my arm.

“Hey – now look here,” he said, steadying me with both hands on my arms. “What they did to you was bad, but you still gotta come with us.”

I looked up into his thin face, seeking understanding but finding none. “What? Go where?”

His brown eyes connected with mine, then fell away. “Stockade.”

In a word

It's been a while since I talked about the novel. I can't call it by name -- wish I could, but right now it is a novel without a name. I'm wracking my brain for the perfect title to sum it all up, and maybe that's the problem. I'm thinking too hard.

Anyway, yesterday on my wiki I came up with one word summations about each character, and even though it's grossly unfair to sum up people in one word, sometimes in the publishing world you have to do it. Think of the jacket of the book, for example.

It was an interesting exercise to me to do. I'm so global in my thinking, it was good for me to have to analyze each character and limit myself to one descriptor. I thought I'd share my list of characters and their characteristics.

Angeline: impetuous
Delilah: proper
Tamar: nurturing
Amelia: leader
Jake: warrior
Big John: wise
Laura: insecure
Will: powerful
Sam: loyal
Elizabeth: selfish
Brandon: self-righteous
Rafferty: self-seeking
Dr. MacDonald: sardonic
Temperance: snobbish

Last night my daughter and I went to the American Idol concert. I could write a whole blog post on that experience, but won't. What affected me most as a writer was Danny Gokey.

Danny came out and did his usual songs and danced some salsa, but before his last song he told the audience that he was passionate about his next subject. He suffered a great tragedy a month before trying out for AI (he lost his wife), but due to a friend's insistence that he follow his dream in spite of the circumstances, great things happened for him.

What he was saying, this 28-year-old widower on stage in front of thousands --who a year ago was just a guy from the Midwest --made sense.

As he sang his song (I Wish for You), I sat in a stupor, barely listening. The wheels were turning . . .

I sat there and thought, Teresa, what's holding you back from pursuing your dream?

The answer came quick: Oh my gosh. I'm letting this stupid recession get me down!

Really? The recession?

Yes! Think about it --

All you hear is that
-- things are bad with publishing houses
-- editors are getting laid off
-- agents won't take newby's work
-- don't even think about making money on your book, because the big name authors aren't making money in this economy
-- e-books are taking over
-- you might have to put your book out there for free on your blog or self-publish
-- it might take a long time to get your stuff even seen by an agent
(shoulders droop farther, farther, farther)

Here's my question: Why am I listening?

I'm sure all of this is correct. But I don't need to hear it, because its effect on me as a struggling novelist is sheer discouragement.

What I DO need to do is work at being a better writer so I can fulfill my dream.

1)I need to set a goal for myself, a daily writing goal that I can aim for. Mine right now is to write a thousand words a day on my novel. Most days I do it, some days I don't. When I set a goal for myself, I know that I'll finish this book. Sooner rather than later.

2)I need to meet with other writers, in person and online. I'm so thankful for Lois and Billie and our every other Monday night sessions at Borders. They know my book almost as well as I do, and I love it when they question situations and word choice and correct my grammar. I do the same for them as well. The online . . . I'm working on that!

3)I need to study my craft. I'm NOT getting another masters degree, so no MFA for me. So I'm pouring over Writers Digest, The Writer, and tons of books and online articles on the subject of writing. I've been to two conferences, and can't wait for another. Cha-ching!

4)I need to be creative with marketing myself and my novel that I've worked so hard on. I need to be up on current marketing trends and flexible with how my novel is publicized. I need to be up on the social media craze. Thank you, Twitter!

So . . . okay! I'm going to pursue my dream, and I'm going to lend a deaf ear to the naysayers and the economic forecasters. There are enough negative voices in my head that threaten to rear their ugly heads and say far more wretched things than "that agency isn't accepting new writers."

In the meantime, I think I'm going to download Danny's song.

So much!

That's why I'm rethinking my title.
It's just not gripping me by the throat these days.
And if it doesn't grip me, will it really grip a casual reader as they peruse the bookshelf?

No -- the question is, will it grip an editor -- will it grip an agent?  Will the title Green Corn and Porch Music provoke anybody to look beyond the title and read the first line? Page? Chapter?

I'm thinking . . . no.

I don't say this lightly.  It will be hard for me to let it go.  Not because I'm married to it or think it's perfect.  Simply because it's become habit to refer to my book by this title.

And there is one person in my writing group who sings the praises of this title.  But I think that's because it describes two parts of my character's life.  Not because it's the kind of title that you'll never forget.

Every time I walk into a bookstore, I stop in front of the bestsellers and study the covers, saying the titles in my heads over and over.  They are GOOD.  Really clever.  I'd love to interview the author or agent or editor or whoever it was that came up with each one.  This is just not my thing!  In fact, truth be told, I'd love to submit my novel with a blank where the title goes and say, "You all are the pros -- you tell me what will sell this novel."  

Don't think I'm an extra trusting person -- it's just that I've scratched my head over this, and studied award-winning titles, best-seller titles, even bad titles, and still come up with nothing.

That is, until the other day, when I was listening to a song by Fleet Foxes.  They had a line that almost got by me, and it would have, had they not repeated it...and I thought, "Hmmm. Now that's thought provoking as a title, especially with my story." I twisted the words around a bit and now I'm ruminating...

Maybe I've got something.

My story is made up. Fiction.

If the moon is shining, or if it's hiding its face -- only I as creator know the truth.
True enough.
It's historical fiction.
And that means it's a made up story that takes place within a real time period.
So. . . if the moon wasn't really shining on July 4, 1832, let's say, shouldn't my characters have a hard time seeing in the dark?

Oh, please.  Nobody's going to know if the moon was shining on a certain day that long ago!
                  But what if somebody did know, and my credibility as a writer fell apart?

It's beat-your-head-against-the-wall-and-go-do-your-research time.

The whole time I was looking up moon phases for 1838 I kept muttering, "This is ridiculous!"
When I opened my wiki and put the new, half and full moons on the calendars for my book, I stopped muttering.  
When I got to the day I'd been writing about, and saw how the moon phase affected how I would write the scene I was working on (i.e., no, my characters wouldn't be able to see each other after the storm, because the moon was in the new stage -- they'd be lucky to see the hand in front of their face!), I moaned.  I had to change EVERYTHING!

BUT -- wow!  My scene is so much better now.  As a writer I had to rely on all senses other than the visual.  

And let's face it -- if I hadn't forced myself to be true to history (even if I was the only one who knew) I would've taken the easy route, and there ALWAYS would've been a full moon illuminating faces!

Older Posts