DRAWN Haunt – Just Because You Can

Edinburgh - Writer's museumThe DRAWN Haunt party continues today with a post about how to tame all those big ideas into one tightly written book.

The DRAWN Haunt is a month-long celebration for my award-winning novel DRAWN‘s 5th anniversary. All October you’ll find here book-related posts about writing, romance, ghosts, time travel and more. To catch all the spooky DRAWN Haunt posts, explore the blog, and check back often or subscribe to this site (see bottom of this post for how).  And for more about my novel DRAWN, click here. 

DRAWN was a complicated novel for me to write, but it definitely taught me a lot. So here’s the most important thing I learned…

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

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In DRAWN, Marie Lamba deftly entwines romance and mystery, past and present, into a page-turning adventure. Buy it today and I promise you’ll be finished reading far too quickly! — Joy Nash, USA Today bestselling author

When writing my ghostly time-travel novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long time frame in the present, but also an eight-month long time frame in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire story lines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer story line and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

 

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: Writing a First Draft

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Happy Agent Monday! Now that everyone is back to school, this is a great time for writers to get serious about tackling their muse and getting thoughts onto paper. But ugh that blank page. Are you staring at one today? Then this guest post by my client, the fabulous Tracey Baptiste, may be just what you need.

WRITING A FIRST DRAFT
guest post by Tracey Baptiste

Here’s the thing you need to know about writing a first draft: You just have to get through it. There are no other rules or tricks. A first draft is basically quarrying rocks. You go, you grab the ones that seem about right, you put them in a nice pile, and then you figure out what that pile is supposed to be later on. But being the creative types that we are, we stumble over every word, beat ourselves up over whether a plot arc or twist is working the way we want it to, and wonder—seriously wonder—why certain strings of words look as awful as they do. I’m better than THAT we think. True. We are. But not today. Today is a draft day, and you can whip that horrible string of words into shape in a little thing I like to call rewrites.

If you think I’m imparting this wisdom to help you out with your writing, or to keep you from stalling out, you would be wrong. Well, mostly wrong. Mostly, I impart this wisdom to help myself, because right now I am stalled in a first draft, wondering why everything looks so horribly bad, and seriously reconsidering my sanity for ever having considered I could write as much as a thank you note.

So this is to remind me (you too, but mostly me) to relax already and not worry so much about which words exactly get put on the page, so long as words that mostly approximate the thing that you think you’re trying to say get on the page. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to write an entire draft of the word “and” or anything. It has to make some sense.

OK, deep breaths. We can do this. We just need to remember that there is only one thing a draft needs to be: Done.

 

Tracey Baptiste - headshotTracey Baptiste is the author of the young adult novel Angel’s Grace (Simon & Schuster), and the forthcoming middle grade novel The Jumbies (Algonquin YR). You can find out more about Tracey at her website, www.traceybaptiste.com, by following her on Twitter @TraceyBaptiste, or by connecting on Facebook at TraceyBaptisteWrites.

Agent Monday: Finding the Time to Write

MP900302970Happy Agent Monday to you all! Today, as we enjoy an extra hour of sunlight (you did turn your clock forward, right?), it’s a perfect time to talk about, well, time!  Specifically, finding the time to write. I’m thrilled today to have a guest post by my client and wonderful author Erin Teagan. Erin, though busy over the years with work and raising a family, has managed to write a number of manuscripts and to work hard at perfecting her craft. She got my attention and offer of representation with a sharp and touching middle grade novel called STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES about Madeline Little, genius scientist in the making, who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Madeline to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

Here’s a look into how Erin finds the time…

 

FINDING TIME TO WRITE

Guest post by Erin Teagan

 

Finding the time to write is a universal struggle for writers. Day jobs, kids, pets, snowmageddons, to-do lists, books to read…there are a million things that require our time and attention before we can give anything to writing.

When I was in college I wrote a terrible YA novel. I worked on it during holiday breaks and in the summer. I pictured what writing would look like when I graduated, churning out book after book with all the time I’d have. A 9 to 5 job? No studying? What else did adults do with their time? Ha!

It took that first year of working to realize that if I wanted to be a writer I had to make it a priority. Because even though I chose a career that rarely required take-home work, it sometimes meant working late. And sometimes it meant traveling and giving up my weekends. It also meant going back to school for a graduate degree. I fantasized about my old college days. What did I do with those huge chunks of time between classes? Why hadn’t I worked on my novel more?

I researched how other writers fit it all in (I’m a scientist. I research EVERYTHING). Lots of articles talked about the time suck of the Internet and TV. But I loved those kind of time-sucks! After working nine or ten hours, sometimes it was all I could do to just sit on a couch with my roommate or husband or 90 lb lap dog and stare at the TV like a zombie. And if you didn’t surf the Internet for at least a little bit, imagine how far behind you’d get on surprise attack kitten videos or dogs romping in the snow? Sometimes you just had to be part of society, you know?

Other articles talked about writing in the wee hours of the morning or into the dark of night. Some of the most successful authors wrote while the rest of the world was sleeping. And I thought, I should give it a try. I was a night person. I used to study into the midnights, I should surely be able to churn out a book or two that way. Except I found that I just couldn’t turn off my to-do list. Those unchecked boxes that remained from my day haunted me, my brain chatter too loud. Was I even meant to be a writer if I couldn’t find any time to write?

I pictured myself fifteen years older, with kids, a mortgage, real-life problems and complications. If I was going to get writing into my schedule, it had to be now. So I tallied my excuses. Why I couldn’t write at night. Why I couldn’t give up my time-sucks. Why I couldn’t possibly write in the early morning. And what I found was I had far less excuses (though they were good ones, I tell you) about writing in the morning.

I remember the first time I tried it. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early. I was on a business trip which meant long, tiring hours. But there were no more excuses. I knew my brain would resist this new schedule so I treated myself to some new books. Plot workbooks. Writing exercises. Books on writing. The first day was a struggle, but I made myself do one writing exercise. I was groggy, the hotel coffee was pretty terrible, but once I got the writer juices flowing, it wasn’t as horrific as I had feared.

This was a big change for me so it took me months. Each week I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier. By the end of it, I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning and my brain was forgetting that I was a night-person. I felt so successful! At the end of that first year I had revised my terrible young adult novel (and then put it in a locked drawer) and managed to write a somewhat decent draft of a new middle grade. I felt so accomplished! I had managed to trick my night-person brain to be something that could function and focus in the wee hours of the day.

Nearly fifteen years later, with real-life complications, kids and a mortgage, I’m so thankful I took the plunge and made writing a priority in my schedule. It took some trial and error and brain training to figure out what worked best for me, but now I can be sure to check off that one ‘writing’ box on my to-do list every day.

Now if I could just apply that to the rest of my life like going through my overstuffed filing cabinet, resolving that toll violation, or exercising. But really, who runs on a snow day? And is that filing cabinet really hurting anyone? So I’ll leave those tasks unchecked on my list for today. At least I got some writing in.

 

Erin TeaganErin Teagan has a master’s degree in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years where she wrote endless Standard Operating Procedures.  She’s an avid reader and has reviewed middle grade and young adult books for Children’s Literature Database and Washington Independent Review of Books.  She’s active in SCBWI and this will be her eighth year co-chairing the Mid-Atlantic fall conference. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES will be her debut middle grade novel. Erin is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.