Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Take Chances! Get Messy! Make Mistakes!

As I write this, the kids are watching their daily dose of Magic School Bus. At the end of every episode, Ms. Frizzle reminds my kids to "take chances, get messy, and make mistakes!" I am finally deciding to take her advice.

I was working on my "novel," really at this point it's more of a collection of words, about 100 pages of words and sentences and chapters that are sort of like a big tornado of ideas and characters and scenes. Up until now, I've been trying to reign in the tornado, to make it follow my own Doppler radar of a plot. Today, I decided to just let loose and stop forcing myself to write the story chronologically.

This is really scary because it means that if things change drastically (which it seems like they sort of need to), I have to rewrite most of what I've already written. Ugh. I decided to change the setting from New York to DC for one thing. Once I put my main character in a neighborhood in DC that I know really well, it was like she just came to life for me in a new way. She just popped into shape like our caterpillar pop-up tunnel. So, it seems like that was probably the right decision. I also toyed with the idea of changing her from an only child into the oldest of seven. (!) It felt so fun and free to write that version of her. I think it might suit her better than being an only child. And I love the idea of writing her mother as this person with millions of kids. That is not too much of a stretch for me to imagine. I kind of like the idea of writing about a mom who has more children and more problems than myself. Maybe it will make my own life seem like a piece of cake.

Now my kids have moved on to doing crafts in the playroom. They definitely took to heart the "make messes" part of Ms. Frizzle's advice.

It's frustrating to think that I will have to rewrite so much of what I've written. I'm such a slow writer and my time to write is at the mercy of naps and preschool lunch bunch and how tall the piles of laundry are at the moment. I wanted writing a novel to be like a long car trip, like if you just log the hours and point yourself in the right direction, you'll get to your destination. It turns out it's not like that at all. Or maybe it is like a long car trip, but with lots of hitchhikers coming along for the ride, making you go the wrong direction just for kicks and forcing you to stop for lots of unplanned Subway sandwiches and bathroom breaks along the way.

I think I remember Virginia Wolf saying that she created her characters and then dug out caves behind them. Maybe my problem is that I've been focusing on plot, where I should've been focusing on characters and digging out their little caves? How can I make them do stuff when I don't really know who they are, what motivates them? Is that what Virginia Wolf meant by caves? I see it less as digging out caves and more as chiseling a sculpture. You're not digging, your chipping away what shouldn't be there and shaping what should be there, until there's a character who resembles a real person, a person you want to read about for 350 pages or so.

I just opened my favorite book about writing (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott) and looked up what she has to say about plot. Here it is:

"Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen. Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens?"

So, thank you, Anne Lamott, for confirming what I already suspected.

I am like two pages away from finishing Jennifer Weiner's newest novel Best Friends Forever. I've really enjoyed reading this book and I've been taking mental notes about what Weiner does that I like so much, so that I can copy it. One thing I've noticed about her books is that she writes really short chapters. Basically her chapters are one scene long. I tend to stay in chapters for-ev-er. I trudge through chapters dutifully, heroically for twenty pages or so. It feels like I'm staring up at Mt. Everest from base camp when I see the cursor blinking underneath the words Chapter ___. If Weiner writes short chapters, why can't I? She's in, she's out and she's onto the next thing. It's almost like cheating. Short chapters keep the action moving and help her jump from one character's point-of-view to another's without having to do a lot of exposition. I feel like half of my chapters are scaffolding holding the scenes together. Scaffolding is not so interesting to read, and it seems like short chapters bypass a lot of that noise.

So, my writing assignment tonight (after spaghetti and meatballs, after baths, and three kids are snoozing) is to start a short chapter about my character who for now lives in Washington, D.C. and has seven children. To get me going, I'm going to use a writing prompt or a "story starter" as we used to call them in elementary school. Here is the prompt. Feel free to join me!

Use this as your first line:

"Behind her the noise escalated."

Write for 15 minutes (or longer if you're in the groove). I'd love to read what you write, so please share! Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!


Robin said...

Thanks for your blog post opener...will attempt soon! Mostly I just wanted to say that I can't wait to read about your "new" character who's one of 7 (or 8?) and lives in DC. Sounds totally fun and interesting. Keep up the great (albeit slower than you'd like) work!


mdm said...

Behind her the noise escalated.

To this day, she will not tell me what she saw when she turned around.

So I have nothing more to write.

gwen1234 said...

I love that you're doing this! Seriously. In more ways than I can tell you. :)


Have you done yours yet, and if so, do we get to see? And I definitely can't wait to see the new changes in your novel (which does not require quotation marks) -- it sounds scary but awesome and so much fun. Even if you go back to the way it was before, you've taken chances with those characters and you'll know them so much better...

Pamela Ehrenberg said...

Oh, I am so excited for you, Elizabeth!

And "She just popped into shape like our caterpillar pop-up tunnel" just might be the best single sentence I've ever read about writing. Seriously.

And you know how big a fan I am of your character, Phoebe--and that won't change whether she's got 7 siblings, or 0, or any other number. Can't wait to read.

Valerie said...

Wow, what a fun writing prompt! I'll be cheering you on as you work your way through this novel.. how exciting!!

Jennifer said...

Some maybe related thoughts...as we prepared for our one-act play competition, we had a visiting director teacher come view the show and offer suggestions. He liked our show in general, as it was tight and well-staged. His biggest suggestion was to now make it "bigger", pushing the characters to live more fully and passionately, with more devotion to their motivations. We spent the next rehearsal trying new, and what we thought were outrageous ideas of blocking for our characters. A lot of the new ideas we kept, and in the end we won the whole competition: best play, best director, best actress. It seems that taking chances is indeed the answer. You have nothing to lose by taking chances and getting messy, and a whole lot to gain!