I hazard to imagine (if one can hazard such a thing) that I am in the final sweep of editing my novel before submitting it to the kind editors and agents who requested it. One question that I have asked myself over the past years is, if I had known what it took to navigate the writing of a novel, would I have stepped on to that ship? In the ensuing silence of me trying to honestly answer that question, I soothe myself with the assurance that the next ones won’t be so arduous because I’ve learned how to do it. The next ones?
After attempting to rub the manuscript shiny in two-hour chunks here and there, I realized that it was an impossible task. In order to ensure continuity, I needed to be able to hold the entire book in my head with every change, which was nigh on impossible in the time increments I could afford. So I booked a week-long retreat with Sue Reynolds at Loretto Maryholme Retreat Centre on Lake Simcoe. Sometimes I’m so smart.
I have known for some time that somewhere in the middle of the story things got a bit wonky, but without a length of uninterrupted time I couldn’t bring it all into focus at once. In the critiquing process of Author Salon, we are now required to provide an extensive and detailed synopsis. The model we have to follow (PSCO – plot, setting and conflict outline) is broken down into acts and scenes and we have to give a blow-by-blow, point-by-point accounting of the storyline. After all the work I’d put into not just the writing of the novel, but all the revisions and other hoops Author Salon has asked us to jump through, I said some very bad words and resisted even looking at the story through that lens. Sometimes I’m so silly.
The retreat had only a handful of participants and so afforded each of us an intimate dialogue with our mentor. On the first day, I had a meeting with Sue wherein she asked me a series of questions about the story, which illuminated the wonky bits and the holes. Essentially, all the places the Author Salon PSCO model had asked us to examine. (I do so much better learning live.) So, I set to work – ripping apart the order of the scenes and fitting them together in a way that really worked. Huh. What that meant, though, was that all of the details had to be adjusted to accommodate the timeline changes – weather in particular. But also the voice of the child, since she grows from nothing to eleven in the story. There was some blood – I had to kill one character (I liked Wendy, but she didn’t add anything to the story, really.) My protagonist’s father had to die sooner than he had. (Sorry, Mr. Rendler, you were a nice guy.) And one very nice walk along the Beaches boardwalk had to be excised (a pity, since it was such a lovely day.) There were tears – when I realized that Wendy had to go, I had a bit of a meltdown. Carrie A. Pearson explains this reaction so beautifully in this post: Revision Disturbs our Emotional Core. Sometimes I’m so disturbed.
Each day of the retreat I had the opportunity to meet with Sue and discuss the project and my process. The afternoon I killed Wendy off I sat weeping in a bath of autumn sun, claiming that it was too hard, that I wasn’t up to it, that I felt inept and ill-equipped and indulgent and a few other prompts from my “council of apes.” It actually wasn’t Wendy; it was the meal worms that set me off. Sue had suggested that although the protagonist’s friend’s raising of larvae for food was a good character “trait”, perhaps I had introduced it too early, and that it was a bit distracting. All morning I had been trying to find a place to stick those bugs and could not find an appropriate spot. It tipped me over the edge. As I sniffed and dabbed at my eyes in that golden room, Sue smiled her warm motherly smile and suggested that we set those meal worms aside for now – leave them where they were. Wendy could die, but please, not those meal worms. Sometimes I’m so relieved.
After seven eight-hour days, I came away with a clearer, cleaner storyline. What I was really missing was a cause and effect storyline. Although I’ve understood for some time on some level that one of the major differences between real life and fiction is that in life things just happen and people do things for no apparent reason, but in fiction, they have to make sense; they have to happen because of something someone does. Cause and effect, revelations and reversals. Well, now I know that it is wise to begin with a structure. Annette McLeod gives a wonderful workshop on how to create and build on structure. (I’ve participated in two of these!) There is so much anguish I could have avoided if I had built my story around a structure.
The house has been torn down several times, but now it’s built with its beams, studs and posts in place. (My apologies and gratitude to L.J., who tried to tell me all of this.) I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve done this thing backwards… my life has kind of been like that. My next novel will be a different story.