UnknownWho? What? When? And Where?

Somewhere in elementary school we were all told that these are the questions you must answer to write a story. I want to focus on the last two, which often get overlooked. Without them, a story is incomplete. The seemingly trivial matters of time and place are two elements of storytelling which are as integral to a well-wrought novel as any other. But they are not as sexy. You won’t find many chapters dedicated to these two elements in Craft of Writing books.

First, time. When I launched into my first draft, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had two major problems with the element of time in my book. I realized quickly that all of my chapters were starting with some version of “she got out of bed…it was morning.” Yikes. The alarm clock was getting as much screen-time, so to speak, as most of my supporting characters. Boring.

And yet, the problem persisted—how do I get my hero—and other characters—through the maze of time? How much time do they need to do what they are doing? It has to be slow enough that the reader feels like they’re getting the whole picture (spoiler alert: I was moving them through time too slowly), but fast enough that some real growth can occur inside my heroine. People don’t change their whole lives in a day.

And I need to give my readers enough clues about time that they know how much is passing, and that time does, in fact, exist inside the world I am creating. Part of what makes the human condition so poignant is the constant press of time. But, I don’t need a clock and a calendar printed in the margins of every page, either.

That brings me to the second observation I made about my writing process the first time through. I was writing about the seasons in real time. In other words, because I wrote the first draft in six months (woohoo, Agile Writer Method!) spanning winter and spring. . .my novel also took place in six months. Spanning winter and spring.

But, actually, my main character and plot needed a little more time than that to evolve. They needed about a year, actually. So, I needed to slow time down, and allow for gaps, and adjust the changing of the seasons accordingly.

I think there is one thing that can help you with these sorts of transitions more than anything else. Reading fiction, particularly other novels. I think that reading fiction as a fiction writer is such an important topic that I plan to write another blog post devoted entirely to exploring that subject. But I think that seeing how other author’s handle elements of storytelling, such as the passing of time, is enlightening and informative. Who knows? You might stumble on an example of how to treat time that you wouldn’t have conjured on your own.

Next time, a few thoughts on the element of place in crafting a novel.

Tracking Changes

imageedit_2_8335958346One of the most beneficial elements of the Agile Writers Method is our tightly-knit critique groups. But what do you do with the edits from your two beloved co-sojouners? There is some disagreement among the Agile Writers. One camp believes that your edits should be entered immediately every week, while they are fresh in your mind. The others—in the name of forward motion—store their edits up and incorporate them during the next draft.

I think it is useful here to distinguish between two different levels of edits received in the critique process.

The first are line edits. These are misspellings, typos, grammatical corrections, punctuation tweaks. Small potatoes. Very important to the finished product, to a polished, serious, publishable work. But, why add commas to sentences that will be struck in the next draft anyway?

This brings us to the second variety of feedback most of us receive from our critique partners: major edits. These are plot changes, character insights, suggestions to add or delete or totally restructure scenes. These are important, and they may subtly—or dramatically—change the course of your book while you are still writing it.

So, perhaps the first kind of edit is best left to the later draft-level stage of editing. And the second kind of edit, the insight-giving, course-correcting variety, should be incorporated as soon as possible?

How does this stop-and-edit practice jibe with our Constantly Move Forward mantra, though?

Let’s take a case study: mine. Sorry, it’s the only one I have direct access to. So, during my first draft, I did not enter any edits in real time. I saved them all in a thrillingly huge, specially purchased accordion folder. This was what helped me continue on. If I had stopped, even for so much as to tie my proverbial shoe, I might have stalled out completely. Stuck. Stagnant. Frozen.

I looked at even the major edits and insights, which did subtly alter my course from then on out, and declared them Problems For Later. Keep it moving. In other words, I wrote as if I had made those major changes but I didn’t make them. Not yet.

I have found that second draft writing is a little bumpier and more time-consuming because I didn’t incorporate these major edits right away. However, I don’t regret my choice. The first draft truly needed to be a nonstop express train to the finish line.

This second go round, I have the comfort of that giant folder of first draft material. This is a luxury that affords me the time to stop and consider those big, earth-shattering, plot-steering changes. I can take them in. I have more space to let in the brilliant insights afforded to me by my critique partners, and I can be a little lighter on my toes—able to move with the revelations as they come.

So, I have practiced entering these larger plot changes, character insights, and scene restructures, into my digital draft right away. I also make notes on my ever-lengthening Master Storyboard—a word document that tracks the evolution of my novel.

Just last week, I was laying down to sleep and suddenly realized (due in part to a note from my critique partner about some first chapter information that hasn’t appeared since. . .), “The reason I can’t seem to write more about my heroine’s job…is that it isn’t important to the plot! It’s actually totally unnecessary. I need to strike it from the first chapter and reassess!”

I sat up, scribbled this insight onto my Storyboard, knowing I will make the change this week. (Even though I will not be resubmitting that chapter to my critique partners.)

In the first draft, this kind of major change would have been daunting, and circling back would have felt like stagnation. In the second, it is liberating—the thrill of changing course midair.

What about you, Agile Writers—do you edit as you go or save them for the end?

An Audience of One

audienceI have heard two competing pieces of advice about considering your audience when writing a novel.

One: define your audience. Be specific. You have to know who you’re addressing in order to create a cohesive work.

Two: don’t worry about who you’re writing to. In fact, try to forget that you have any desire to publish the book and have it read by others. If you write primarily out of that desire to be published, you will compromise your creativity. Just write. Concentrate on writing one day at a time. Write something that you can feel good about. Your audience will appear if you’ve done your job well.

Maybe it’s just my peacemaker personality, but I happen to think there is a way to link these two apparently opposing prescriptions.

What if you define your readership and then you try to forget all about them and just write?

I know, that sounds impossible.

I do think it’s important to define who you are writing to. It’s one of the first tasks we undertake in Agile Writers. We have to decide what gender and age bracket we think our readers are in. For me, it turns out that I should have taken this a step further before beginning to write. I needed to define who my audience is in terms of what they know about the subject matter of my book.

I am writing in large part about a religious experience that is outside of the norm for most Americans. So, somewhere in the middle of my first draft I realized that I needed to make a choice about my audience. Was I writing to that small (but growing) population who has experienced many of the contexts my protagonist finds herself exploring? Or am I writing to a general audience who will quite possibly have no information about the subject other than what I tell them?

This matters. Not knowing the answer to this question has stopped me in my tracks at a few junctures in the writing process. I have asked myself the following maddening questions (and others!): Am I explaining too much or too little here? Do I need a glossary of terms? Should I just stick to the English translations of these terms? Is this of interest to my reader? Is it relevant? Am I accidentally writing a textbook within a novel?

Well, that depends—who am I talking to?

Trying to answer the question of “who am I talking to?” inevitably sends my mind down the track of wondering what the most marketable answer to that question might be. Do I embrace a very small niche market? Or do I aim for broader appeal?

What is important to me, though, is not that I am absolutely sure that I have chosen the right audience for my book. What is important to me is that I am able to write the book. And thinking too much about marketing seems premature when I don’t actually have a book to be marketed yet.

So I took a stab at identifying my audience and answering some of those haunting questions, if only so that the questioning voices would quiet down long enough for me to get back to the real work—writing a novel.

I cannot write for an eventual publisher, reader, agent, or anyone else. If I am going to write something authentic, then my audience is one—me. I have to write to satisfy myself. Then I have to let others be the ones to tell me if my book is relatable or too obscure. I can make guesses, but I will never truly inhabit another’s context and so I don’t know exactly what my audience wants.

I only know what I want.

And I want to keep writing.