Jilly: If You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

If You Can't Go Forward, Go BackThere are so many things to learn about this writing game, and a surprising amount of it is a matter of trial and error. Process is a great example. After three years, I’m still figuring mine out. Given my resume I should be a plotter, but I turned out to be a pantser. I compensate by developing the story sequentially, start to finish. Some authors write the juicy bits first; I have to work my way up to them in an orderly fashion. I wish I was faster – a thousand words a day seems to be my cruising speed – but when I’ve got ‘em down, they tend to stick, and once I get some momentum I can usually maintain it for days, weeks, even months.

I think I figured out something new about my process this week.

Back in the day, I used to work with a Frenchman (hi, Alain!). We got on well, and over the years we developed a schtick about our respective nationalities – I taught him that “Bloody French” is one word, he explained that the French see Brits as sneaky: the phrase is “Perfide Albion.” One of his other oft-repeated observations was that if you ask a Brit a question, we’ll more than likely begin our answer by putting it into its historical context. He had a point. We were once at Heathrow with an American colleague who was complaining about the amount of red tape he had to deal with. “Been that way since the Boston Tea-Party, sir,” said Her Majesty’s customs officer with a smile.

I thought about Alain’s theory yesterday, as I went back to the drawing board yet again on my new book. A month ago I wrote this post about my efforts to kick-start the story. My problem was (and is) that the main characters know each other really well – or think they do – and I don’t know them deeply enough to put them credibly on the page together.

With my previous story I got to know my hero and heroine by writing them. I’ve been trying that with Cam and Mary for weeks now, and I wouldn’t say it’s been a total failure, but it’s been painful. I have about twenty efforts at a first scene. I relocated it from a nice, warm pub to a snowy hillside (good). I tweaked both characters’ goals and motivation (better). It’s stronger than it was a month ago, but I’m nowhere near ready to move on, and it’s driving me nuts.

One thing I’ve learned about my process is that if the Girls in the Basement aren’t comfortable with the direction I’m taking, they’ll down tools. I’ve spent a month trying to drag them forward to somewhere they clearly don’t want to go, and I’m exhausted. Yesterday I went back to the drawing-board. I asked myself if I’m sure I want to write this book, and gave myself permission to scrap it and move on. Phew. Not necessary. I like the characters, I know they belong together and I can’t leave them in limbo.

So I’ve decided to try looking backwards. Get the full historical context. In my last story, Ian and Rose were new to each other, so it was natural to figure everything out as we went along. Cam and Mary have baggage, so it makes sense to find out everything they’re bringing to the story. When they talk in shorthand to one another, I need to understand what’s being said, and what’s not. Then the three of us can move forward together, make new discoveries and surprise each other.

My new plan is to get Cam and Mary’s shared past and all that Gilded Lily history on the page as a short story, or maybe a novella. Then use that as a spring-board for the current-day story. I have to figure out the details, but I’m sure I felt a nod of approval from the Girls.

I think (hope) I’m on the right track this time. If I am, it will stand me in good stead not just for this book, but for future ones too. I’ll keep you posted!

What did you learn this week?

7 thoughts on “Jilly: If You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

  1. My big discovery this week is that spending all your free time on an agetn search is not conducive to finding time to write.

    I also have a character arc problem. Adrianna (aka Adie), my protagonist who wins an extreme makeover. I understand what her movitation for getting the makeover (she wants a sales job so she can save her home from foreclosure), but I’m a lot less clear on just what it is she needs to learn to earn her HEA.

    • I feel your pain re: agent search. Hopefully it’ll turn out to be one of those important life decisions like buying a house or finding a job – interminable and stressful while you’re embroiled, worth it in the end.

      How are you tackling your character arc problem? Can you write through it until everything becomes clearer, or do you have to get a better handle on it before you can move forward?

    • You must be planning to pitch at RWA, right Jeanne? This might be the year to hang out in that check-in room to snag as many cancellations as you can. Although your query letter, with “Golden Heart finalist” should open a lot of doors.

  2. Cam and Mary novella- woo hoo!! That sounds like a wonderful idea. Both a great way for you as a writer to get a grip on your character interactions and a lovely bonus for your future legions of readers. I love it when my favorite series have between-book novellas.

    • Oh, good, I’m glad you like the idea – I’m feeling very excited about it. I guess it would be a series kick-off novella since it would be way before Ian meets Rose. As soon as I thought of it, I knew it was something I really wanted to do.

  3. Sounds like a lot of work, but if writing were easy, everyone would be doing it (-:. I hope it turns out to be inordinately fun work!

    I’ve spent the week wishing I had a few extra hours in the day. It seems that I have a lot of books I want to finish reading, just hanging half-done.

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