Sunday, October 25, 2009
Writing Process (Part 3) -- Communing With Carrots
It was during a family reunion at a cabin in Oregon--I was stuck on the plot for Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy and it was driving me crazy. It was like the pig incident, but this one involved a carrot. Now, let me state right off that the carrot was innocent of any wrongdoing--it was, in fact, all my fault. I'd let it pop into the story for sentimental reasons. You see, my older brother (Mark) had a dog (Bear)who was a fan of carrots, so when I gave the priest (Fr. Mayhew) in Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy a dog (Gregory), that dog soon adopted a lot Bear's personality traits. For you writers, it falls under the write-what-you-know umbrella. Bear really was part of the family. He was my brother's constant companion. From the day Mark brought him home inside the folds of his motorcycle jacket, to the day they died together in a car accident, those two were best of friends. So yeah. Sentiment played a big part in my giving Gregory Bear's carrot-chomping habit, and as I neared the end of the book, sentiment was what made me battle the glaring need to remove it. I mean, this carrot-chomping business was in every scene that Gregory appeared. The carrot was slimy and slobbery and Gregory was constantly nudging his little carrot-gnawing nose into Sammy's leg, trying to get her to quit sleuthing and start throwing (because Gregory likes to play fetch with his gnawed-down, slobbered-on carrot). It had become like the proverbial gun. Conventional writing wisdom: If you introduce a gun in your story, you must fire it before the end of the story. Otherwise why have a gun? I mean, guns are not toys. You don't play with them. And in writing, if you bring it out, you've got to shoot it. Anyway, the carrot had become like a gun. I'd mentioned it over and over and over, but why? I knew I had no compelling reason, and it had gone way beyond giving Gregory a personality trait. Sentiment did not justify my having made such a big deal out of a stupid carrot. The carrot had to either lead up to something or I needed to get rid of it. But, see, I was attached to the carrot on several levels and I didn't want to tone it down. It reminded me of Bear. And my brother. I wanted it to stay. Now, maybe I was feeling so attached to the carrot because realizing the carrot had to either be a plot device or be gone occurred in the midst of a family reunion. My husband and our kids, my siblings, their spouses, their kids and our mother were all under one roof in a cabin in Oregon. I missed my brother Mark. I missed his carrot-chomping dog. So I redoubled my efforts to find a reason for Gregory to hold onto his carrot habit. I thought and thought and thought and drove my husband nuts discussing the potential uses of carrots in my story. I spent four solid days thinking about carrots. And then, finally, I decided I should hold one. It was sheer desperation. I thought that maybe hanging out with a carrot would help me. Maybe the veggie would find a way to talk to me. And the funny thing is, it did. Now, maybe you don't know of any carrot-chomping dogs. Maybe you've never tossed a slobbery orange root just because a perky-eared canine gave you his best puppy-dog look. But if you ever have you know that a carrot that's been mauled all day by a dog is (besides being utterly gross) at dog-breath temperature. It's warm. The instant I retrieved a carrot from our Oregon cabin's icebox, I had my clue. It was (of course) cold. And with that clue came the plot device and the purpose for the Gregory's carrot-chomping habit. I was overjoyed. The carrot stayed! It seems obvious now, but at the time I'd been looking for ways to use the carrot. Ways to have it be a tool for Sammy. And all the thinking in the world wouldn't yield a solution. It was actually holding the carrot that did it. So the moral of the story is, you can't always move forward with just your imagination. It helps to feel the earth, climb the tree, absorb the sounds and smells and temperatures of your story. In other words, commune with carrots. Whatever your carrots may be.