Last week I flew to Arizona to talk about story with the 8 Ladies. As a prologue to the retreat weekend, Kay and Jilly and I planned to road trip our way from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon to the Navajo Nation. None of us had ever been there (I’d done a quick drive through the year before which doesn’t count), so I brought along my trusty TomTom (GPS). At the last-minute, however, I decided to indulge my compulsive side. I downloaded Google directions for each leg of our journey as a precaution. GPS is rarely wrong but sometimes it takes you in a direction you don’t want to go. Using voice-only GPS is like flying blind, and I didn’t want to get lost on some lonely two lane road in the middle of nowhere after sunset.
So we hit the road using Tom as our guide. Almost immediately Tom began behaving badly, shouting inane orders to “turn around” or “turn left” when clearly we were going in the right direction (and there was no left turn for miles). Initially, Jilly held him in her hand gently coaxing him to be good, but once Kay began consulting Mr. Google (who was always right, bless him), we never trusted Tom again. Oh, we let him go on about “Right turn ahead” or “bear left” but we always consulted Mr. Google and his map to make sure we were going the way we wanted to go.
So what does this have to do with a picture of a whiteboard? Prior to last weekend’s writer’s retreat at Justine’s house, my whiteboards were my GPS. They were filled with brilliant notations on character goals and motivation, directions for subplots and scene ideas, and descriptions of characters arcs. But I hadn’t updated my board in months. In fact, I barely looked at it anymore. I was on auto pilot.
Enter Jilly and Kay, a bottle of wine, and a stop-over in Page, Arizona after a long day of touring. As you might expect from a group of writers, we began talking story. Specifically, my story. What was Cheyenne up to? Glad you asked said I and proceeded to talk about Cheyenne’s relationship with River (the kid is fun to write!), the conflict between Cheyenne and Hawk, Rose’s motivation for leaving Cheyenne…ring-a-ding dong. After a few minutes, Kay’s hand went up. “It doesn’t sound to me like you’re writing a love story,” she said. Then she pointed out that I’d mentioned every relationship in the story except one: the romance between Cheyenne and Reed. If I was writing women’s fiction, that was fine, great even. But I wasn’t.
That’s wasn’t my only revelation during my week in Arizona, but it was certainly the thing that most vividly illuminated what was wrong with my book.
Jilly and Kay also helped me resolve a nagging issue (Cheyenne’s goal). I returned home excited and renewed and ready to begin again. But my first order of business was to wipe the slate clean. I took a last look at my whiteboard, and then erased it.
No, more swapping babysitting for construction skills (at least not in the way I’d planned before). No more Reed looking at Cheyenne as a mother to River (on the contrary he’s going to fall for her despite her lack of mothering skills). I can also answer the question of what is keeping them apart (social pressure from the conservative town, not to mention Hawk). Lastly I have a solid, believable goal for Cheyenne that fits nicely with her character arc (finance her dream home by selling off Rose’s property).
Do you have a road map for your story?