Helpful, that’s what people like to be when you tell them you’re writing a novel. Help is good, no doubt but writing is a solitary endeavor most of the time. Though really, success is found in embracing a community of editors, beta-readers and dogs…no not dogs, unless you’re thinking of Snoopy who has a lot of experience with unhelpful people like Lucy.
Today’s lesson from the Comics, is from Peanuts. Lucy informs Snoopy that his writing is terrible. She doesn’t say that, family and friend critics often don’t. She says it lacks ‘feeling’ then gives the great advice of a plot of ‘boy meets girl, loses her, finds her again’. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. This is Lucy’s interpretation of feeling, a simple plot with an emotional path.
Okay, so a backbone of a three sentence plot is a good idea but I challenge you to look a little deeper in your current work. What feeling pervades it? Is there one? I think the easier that you can identify the feeling of your novel, the more likely the story is sound and therefore able to handle the structure and bulk of a novel. I took this challenge myself. I debated and searched in my novel “Kill Words”, but I cannot say what overarching feeling the story carries. I’ll have to think about that, which means I’ll have to think about why that is and if it is fixable. In my defense, I haven’t been working on it for several weeks. I’ve lost my way a bit. However, the storyline in “The Roady Series” on my flash fiction blog Entylerywords.com is easy to state. The story is saturated with rejection and acceptance juxtaposed. Hmm, also something to think about.
Lucy doesn’t stop there with her editorial advice. She insists on helping Snoopy by looking over his shoulder to provide him with instant feedback. Is that the answer to a great first draft? Would immediate criticism ensure writing and the story stay on track? I’m thinking, no. As much as reader’s opinions are essential to perfecting a novel for publication, feedback over the shoulder is as helpful as a back seat driver. I’m likely to drive off the road in nervous reflex to one more instruction on how to improve a sentence. Even so, I would take someone up on the offer. I have found even one pointer on how to improve my writing is worth any amount of feeling like my hard work is derailed to the junk yard; a truth I want to face early on. What about you? Is there a brutally honest ‘Lucy’ in your life?
It’s a hot debate in writer’s circles with the old adage ‘write what you know’ against ‘create your own world’. I personally think writing is one of the last frontiers for the mind, that and scientific research (ha ha). The subject, the setting, the fiction needs to have the freedom to expand to fill whatever space the story fits in. Apart from technical and historical accuracy, I say, breathe your characters to life in the circumstance that they fit in whether it’s been your experience or just one you know of. The truth is, in many ways we all share in common human pressures, disappointments, joys and triumphs. In mini-bites there are moments of hunger, desperation, hopelessness, being mis-understood, deceived, betrayed, loved, abused, broken, wounded, stuck with no clear way out and the list goes on and on.
In the Peanuts cartoon, Lucy complains that Snoopy’s story about suffering is shallow, meaning it’s not believable. She accuses him of having not suffered enough to get it right. That is the key point if you’re going to superimpose your mini-bites of life over a character whose whole life is about something you may know just a little bit about and the rest is imagination you better get it right. To do that, you need to be a studier of people, of emotions, and think deep enough, act out in your mind the full experience and lose yourself in a new reality. It’s a gamble and it means frequent gut checks. Does this ring true? It means research and interviewing and pulling from all those sources and then crafting the words up out of it. In that process, I have lost myself in research and learned things I never would have if I didn’t need to strengthen the believability of my story plot. Early on in my writing adventure I was writing a book about two friends, one with AIDS and the other a medical student. My draft story received such a scathing critique from someone on the frontlines of patient care. She let me know I didn’t get it right. She challenged me to get to know my subject. I took the challenge and joined a volunteer program to help patients who didn’t have any family to support them. Before you think I’m a saint, I never actually became an active volunteer but I stepped into a world that I would never have understood if I didn’t write myself into that corner. Tread carefully in the land of research. That’s all I’m saying. It may be easier just to rewrite scenes from your own life ; avoid the challenge and pitfalls of conjecture….really? When are we writers afraid of going into the unknown wherever the pen may take us? You’ll be fine. Write on!