Sunday, April 11, 2010
A Stranger In My House
Mark and I have a brainstorming process that works really well for us when it comes to plotting our stories. One of us will say to the other "I need to talk plot" and then we make the time to do that. Sometimes it's on a long car ride, sometimes just at home. But it's just so nice to talk about what you've been stewing up. It engages a different part of the brain and really seems to help move things along -- or expose the flaws in your plotting. So brainstorming with Mark is something I do with every book I write, but I guess I didn't really realize what a valuable process this is until this weekend, when I helped another writer brainstorm. I'm going to call this other writer Suzanne. Let's just say she's very well known in her field, and that field is not writing. When I met her about 6 months ago, I knew "of" her, and she knew "of" me, but it's not like we knew each other. At that first (and only) encounter, she sought me out and began talking about "her novel." My initial reaction was, Uh-oh, because a lot of people will do that -- they want me to help them get connected, or published, or whatever. But she had a certain credibility because of who she is, and when it came out that "her novel" was actually written, that helped, too. (You'd be surprised how many people talk to me about their "novel" but haven't actually written anything.) And then I learned that Suzanne was stuck on the rewrite--she just couldn't get through this one very emotional part -- and I realized that she was both serious and emotionally wrung out by her story. Something in it was sort of torturing her. I told her how I brainstorm with Mark, and how talking out your plot and character back story and all of that can really help get past the rough patches. I asked her if she had anyone she could brainstorm with she said no, so I encouraged her to find someone. A couple of months ago our encounter crossed my mind and I wondered if she'd had a breakthrough, or found a writer's group or brainstorming partner. I was actually feeling kind of bad for not being more helpful -- I could still picture the tears in her eyes when she was talking about her story. So I got an e-mail relayed to her, asking if she'd had a breakthrough. She wrote back immediately saying she had not. To make a very long story at least somewhat shorter, I offered to help. But this wasn't something that could be done over the phone and in the end she wound up driving for several hours to come to my house to spend the weekend here for a "writer's retreat" with me. We were two strangers, really, with only the assurance that we knew "of" each other, to keep from worrying that we might get murdered in the night. She came armed with a laptop and reams of printed pages. Scenes. Sections. The first third of the novel. A chronology. I began by asking her to tell me about her story. For the first hour I felt like I was in the middle of a tornado. Story parts were flying all around me! Characters! Scenes! Events! They all twisted madly, whirling and flying through the air. She talked and paced and gesticulated. I just held on and listened. She gave me segments to read. I read and absorbed. She talked and paced and gesticulated some more. And after two hours of this, I started making connections. And suggestions. Now, when a person has spent nearly two years with a story in her head, I know it's a hard thing to make mental shifts in who the key characters are and what they really want and how they're going to go about getting it. But she was amazingly open and excited to hear new ideas and see how weaving in certain threads could tie a theme, her story together. She let go of things that weren't working and embraced new ideas that might help her move forward. She took frantic notes on a yellow pad, with big swooping strokes. She asked me to repeat things. Considered my every suggestion. It was very late when we finally closed "shop" for the night, and I realized that we had completely dismantled her original story and that the restructure was going to be a tremendous amount of work. I was worried that she might be a little discouraged by the enormity of the task (and the utter destruction caused by my 'help'). But when I mentioned this, she said, "No! I feel wonderful! I feel like an angel has lifted me up and flown me here!" What a wonderfully receptive writer. And yes, I might be pretty good at structure. After twenty five books I've had a little experience with it. But I'm not nearly as good alone as I am with the help of Mark. And then my editor will usually add some additional ideas that improve the story or structure. It helps so much to talk it through. So really, what I think Suzanne needed most was just someone to talk to. Someone who would listen. She's definitely got talent as a writer, she just needed help figuring out how to apply it. The next day we made up a new "chronology" for her story, with a main plot, two subplots, and half a dozen smaller threads to weave things together tightly. She left here feeling happy and full of energy for a new approach to her story, and I watched her go feeling good (and still a little amazed) that I'd been able to help her.