My writer friend who graciously offered to beta-read my novel — we met up at a restaurant, ordered dinner and spread each other’s respective manuscripts all over the table, thoroughly puzzling our waiter — had several excellent suggestions for improving things, one of them being some flashback scenes. It would help humanize one of the characters. It would give the other characters more depth. It would help pinpoint where a particular relationship started to go wrong.
Now, I hadn’t thought in detail about what happened to these characters before the start of the novel. Because I’m a pantser. (I love this term for some reason. It makes me giggle.) I quite literally make it up as I go along. I find my way through the story as I write it, as though a road map were some sort of unnecessary oddity. Which is ironic, because a road map, and a GPS, and possibly a co-pilot, are entirely necessary when I want to physically go somewhere. Letting my brain wander aimlessly is much more useful than letting the car wander, and it saves on gas, too.
So following my friend’s suggestion, I flipped to the likeliest starting spot and began to write a flashback scene. And then I did it again. And again. And discovered facets to my characters’ personalities that I had not known were there. Apparently there’s a reason why two of them don’t like each other. There’s a bit of stubbornness, an immaturity, in the main character I hadn’t seen before, but now I do.
I’m quite delighted that my characters and I still have interesting things to say to each other. I hope that never changes.
I’m about running out of space in the narrative to add another flashback (otherwise they’re in danger of colliding with the present, and then I’d have a bit of a metaphysical pileup), and am a little disappointed. My characters will just have to find another way to get my attention.
I spent a few days writing a rough draft of a picture book manuscript, then switched over to the novel, adding some tweaks and flashback scenes suggested by one of my writer friends (who very kindly agreed to read the whole thing and give me feedback). It’s interesting going from one to the other — almost an exercise in opposites.
What the novel has most needed is additional description and context, including those flashback scenes, which are helping a lot to humanize one of the main characters (frankly she needed some humanizing). The scenes have been awfully fun to write too. I have a tendency to literally make things up as I go along, so writing these extra scenes down is giving me a chance to get to know my characters a little better. I keep going “Of course this happened, I should’ve known.” As though they hadn’t told me these things before now.
Picture books, given that they have, well, pictures, don’t need everything spelled out. In fact they need very little spelled out. They’re minimalist; every word counts. When I revise my manuscripts, I’m subtracting words, not adding them. It’s most like writing a poem. Which makes sense because my favorite picture books all sound like poems. Exhibit A: “Where the Wild Things Are,” which, after growing up with it and then reading it to my own kids, I can recite from memory.
Side note: How much fun would a poetry reading be if the poetry were children’s books? Somebody make this happen.
It’s funny how piling up the words, or scrubbing out the words, can make such a difference either way. Good practice, I think.
I’m still tweaking the novel, as my writers groupmates have offered some great suggestions for improving things here and there, and let’s face it, you’re never really done with a piece until it’s published. Which I don’t mind. Revising can actually give you a chance to see your work through different eyes, and that changed viewpoint can lead to revelations, and even better revisions. Kill your darlings, as everyone says now that it was the title of a Daniel Radcliffe movie which everyone may or may not have watched. (Full disclosure: I have not. I’d like to, though.)
In the meantime, I’ve joined 12 x 12 and it’s pretty fabulous. The goal is to write 12 picture books in 12 months. The website offers advice from published writers, a place where people can post the beginning of their manuscript for critiquing and critique others in turn, suggested services for writers and illustrators … it’s like NaNoWriMo except you have a whole year to accomplish things. I didn’t get anywhere near my goal in NaNoWriMo this year (to be fair: NaNoWriMo is in November. We hosted Thanksgiving. That’s a bunch of days lost right there), so let’s see how I do with this.
Writing picture books is fun, even though I can’t quite let loose the way I can with adult fiction. The two genres satisfy different parts of my brain, I think. The tricky part will be balancing the novel with the picture books and making sure nothing gets neglected. Oh, and remembering to acknowledge my family on occasion. I should do that too.
I haven’t added much to this site lately, and I’d like to change that. In my defense, I’ve been making tweaks here and there to my novel, while also revising some of the children’s stories I’ve written, and starting another. So I haven’t been slacking per se. I’ve just been slacking here. Half a point for me?
I met up with some of the other members of my writers group for brunch last weekend and it was quite the fabulous time. We all chatted about our families, and the state of parenting today, and the sacredness of Skee-ball (OK, that was me), and how our various writing projects are going. (One of our members has a novel coming out this summer — I’m so excited for her, and also can’t wait to read it.)
I have no idea what took me so long to join a writers group. It’s pretty wonderful to be around other word-loving people, since we’re able to encourage and critique and inspire each other. I’ve gotten some great suggestions from them on how to improve my various stories, and I hope I’m at least half as helpful in return.
Also, the food at the brunch was tasty. Never underestimate the importance of good food. Trust me: I’m a Jewish mother.
So having been inspired by my fellow writers, I do solemnly swear to continue to expand and improve this site. I’d call it a resolution, but, well, it’s mid-January already. Haven’t people pretty much broken their resolutions by now?