Posts Tagged ‘The Way Life Should Be’

romeo-and-juliet1At the Globe Theatre in London last week, a professor from Rosehampton University gave a short lecture about Romeo and Juliet before the production began.  In discussing the origins of the play the professor said, as an aside, “Of course, as we all know, Shakespeare didn’t invent anything.  All of his plays were based on stories that would’ve been familiar to audiences at the time.”

I was musing about this when I got the following email from a novelist friend:  “I am struggling so on my new novel … I cannot find my way into the story, which breaks my heart, but I cannot give it up, either.  Do you have any tip for finding your way into a very thorny story?”

As everyone knows who has read this piece about the trouble I had writing my new novel, I am quite familiar with this problem.  So here’s something that worked for me.  While writing both The Way Life Should Be and Bird in Hand, I studied novels that successfully achieved something that I wanted to do – and essentially copied their strategies.

When I was writing The Way Life Should Be I wanted the story to move really quickly; I wanted to begin scenes in the middle.  I’d just read The Lovely Bones and admired how Alice Sebold varied her chapter openings and seemed to jump right into the action in each new scene.  So I literally wrote the first few words of each scene in Sebold’s book in a notebook.  Then, when I was stuck, I looked at the list of scene openings for inspiration.  I didn’t actually copy her words, but I found that this list of phrases triggered my own ideas for starting in the middle.

Here’s another example.  Writing Bird in Hand, I was obsessed for a time with Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.   I loved the multiple points of view and the paradoxically intimate but slightly detached voice(s).  Bird in Hand is nothing like that book, but I was influenced, in writing it, by how Cunningham achieved a kind of patient unfolding.  The scene in my novel with Ben in the flower shop is my secret homage to Cunningham – and of course to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway … which provided the inspiration and the source material for The Hours.

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I used to agonize over each word and phrase in a first draft, doubtful that when I came back to it, weeks or months later, I would be able to see, much less fix, the things that didn’t work. But while I was writing my third novel, The Way Life Should Be – and editing other people’s manuscripts at the same time – I had an epiphany.

(Yes, it took three novels to figure this out.)

Here’s what I realized: My editor-self is surprisingly clear-headed, even ruthless.  Hyper-critical and exacting, she is capable of transforming a freewheeling, messy draft into clear and lucid prose. And she likes doing it. red_pencil

This realization freed my writer-self to have more fun. My first drafts have become more spontaneous and energetic; I feel free to try out a range of ideas, follow tangents in odd directions, write a scene of dialogue three different ways – all with the knowledge that my editor-self will step in when needed.  With a red pencil and a roll of the eyes:  What was she thinking?

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