Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part IV: Advice

My first assignment at the retreat was to write down chronologically what happens, from beginning to end, in my novel. Not surprisingly, I struggled with this. I did have quite a few things worked out: a timeline for when each of the characters were born, for example, and some significant events like Hurricane Noel in 2057, and the Great Flood of Manhattan that breached the protective sea wall in 2042, the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061-2. These events were necessary to get my characters away from the rising seas to Western NY, where they live during the novel.

At the beginning of the book, as I first conceived of it, everything is falling apart: Hallie feels like a screw-up, she’s isolated from her newly and unexpectedly pregnant mother, and her father Daniel is in danger of losing his job at the Space Agency in Western New York. Then Daniel disappears while out finding a geocache.

How and why did it all turn around? During NaNoWriMo I took an extended trip into Daniel’s head. I discovered, while writing about him, that he was a student activist and had been the victim of a government memory wipe. He started to uncover memories when he started to find geocaches again. It was a hobby he had loved as a child, and those memories weren’t completely destroyed after all. But there was still this hole: how did Hallie find Daniel? I figured that she might make and hide a geocache that he would find, that would bring him home again. But why wouldn’t he just come home on his own? Why would he leave and stay away so long in the first place?

When I got to this impasse a few years ago, I had started showing the draft to readers, and also, reading a lot of writing advice on the internet. I subscribed to newsletters about writing and got writing tips on email. I did Camp NaNoWriMo. What I hoped was that I might get some help with this plot problem. But I was largely unable to interpret—or even understand–the advice I got, well-meaning though it was. I was told, for example, that YA readers would find this story too complicated. And they wouldn’t care about Daniel anyway. No, I needed to decide on “a protagonist” (Hallie?) and “an antagonist” (eliphino!) I waded through lots of advice about beat sheets, rising action, and try-fail sequences. Then, I read that eighty percent of Science Fiction is told in 3rd person limited point of view, that third person omniscient is old-fashioned, and first person is “very hard to pull off.” And besides, I should avoid “head hopping.” So I needed to stick to Hallie’s point of view. But how to tell what happened to Daniel when Hallie wasn’t present?

Then I heard from another reader or two that the opening as it stood, there in the attic room with the storm, was boring. Nothing happens, no action, no conflict, no motion, nothing to hook the reader, to draw them in, to engage them, to create tension and suspense. The internet in turn was awash in breathless stories of readers, agents, and editors who put stories away and sent them back if they weren’t grabbed immediately by the first page, first paragraph, first line, first word. Amazon kindle statistics about “reader engagement.” Writerly memes that intoned, “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

So, in the past two years I had reworked the opening 3 times, taking Hallie out of the attic and putting her out for a run with her friend Annie. (I’d also meanwhile changed Annie’s name from Rachel because Rachel sounded too much like Roberta, another character whose name I was more attached to and wanted to keep.) I wanted her to be running because there was motion, there was the opportunity to see the world as she ran by it, and opportunity to introduce and interact with Annie. And then it turned out that nobody liked that opening all that much, either. Because IF YOU HAVEN’T HOOKED YOUR READER BY THE END OF THE FIRST PAGE, YOU’RE DOOMED!!!

All this and more came to mind, there during the storm of the first night.

There were some other parts to that assignment that I found more do-able. I actually had to write out all these things too, as they related to my novel, and I did a lot better at the ones other than #1. I especially loved thinking about themes and symbols.

1. Plot, 2. theme (journey vs. goal, humans’ relationship to nature and the earth, access to resources, fairness, family, community, diversity and creative destruction), 3. setting (pages worth of description of the future Northeastern USA in 2074), 4. character (names, histories, ages and relationships for 12 characters), 5. conflict, 6. symbol (comets and guiding stars, music, driving), 7. point of view, 8. literary devices (finding geocaches as a metaphor for finding yourself)

Linda’s and my first discussion of this assignment was, not surprisingly, a little bumpy. Because I tend to need a lot of clarification, and also because I needed to turn off these overwhelming voices in my head, I asked Linda a lot of questions. I also voiced disagreement with her, especially when I felt like the advice she was giving me was just more of the same that I’d already seen on the internet. For example, yes, I’ve heard that the opening line is supposed to engage the reader, and yet, my favorite childhood novel opens with “It was a dark and stormy night,” today viewed as the most cliched thing ever. How do you reconcile those conflicting inputs?

kleenexTeachers and editors will probably read that and cringe. But isn’t that I just wanted to be contrary, or defensive—although perhaps it looked that way. What I needed was a way of sorting through and evaluating all this stuff, of learning how to take what I could use and leaving the rest. I’m good at a lot of things, but understanding and taking advice gracefully isn’t one of them. And I can get easily overwhelmed. Tears were involved. And Linda handed me a Kleenex.


“Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie” – The Set
–A series of blogs describing my experiences at Windbreak House, a women’s writing retreat in South Dakota run by Linda Hasselstrom

6 thoughts on “Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part IV: Advice”

  1. I think — as if you even need one more piece of dog-eared, irrelevant and nagging bit of advice — that you write and you write and you write and when you get to the end, you start at the beginning and some of the holes you are grappling with now will have miraculously filled themselves. Other opportunities will present themselves, some things you’ll get rid of all together, etc., but if you listen to the critic and the editor and the voices of doom before you’ve even got the story fleshed out (no matter how jagged the line from beginning to end may seem at first blush) then you will never get it done. I found the easiest way to rework something was only a few pages back at a time, the way you might do a blog post (because the second time through is always much improved) so that you are always doing editing-lite, but never interrupting the flow of your thought and the heart of the story. There’s always time to put the finer details in, but first you have to get the general shape of things down. For me, many times if I’m stuck on a plot point I go to bed thinking about it and asking for clarification and I wake up with a scene right there in my mind’s eye or the answer to my issue. But you have to get out of your own way first. It’s the absolute opposite of all the skills you use at work! Good luck, Karen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Pam! That sounds a little like Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird advice. I agree with and even like what she has to say on revision, but I ended up giving that book away before we moved from MA last year, because she annoyed me for some reason. I can’t even remember why anymore . . . I think she just sounded too self-absorbed. On one hand, I can totally understand why writers write so much about writing. It’s their life, it’s their passion, and it’s what they spend a large chunk of their time doing. But still, as a reader, I would rather read about something else.

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      1. Ah, “Bird by Bird” is a wonderful book. I don’t read that many books on writing because I’d rather just be writing than reading about it. Still I did love that book (and Stephen King’s book on writing, aptly titled “On Writing”). But ultimately, the technical stuff comes with time and the art and emotion and all the stuff that people read a book for comes in fits and starts of inspiration. I do think that spending too much time editing during the first draft will derail you. I have a friend who wrote a brilliant novel, or at least 7/8s of it. She could never figure out the ending because she was constantly perfecting what she’s written was so paralyzed by that perfection that she finally had to shelve it. The book, what she’d written of it, was eloquent and poetic and flowing, but no one will ever see it. Just keep at the first draft and pick up the crappy and not so crappy pieces later. Your inner editor will have plenty of time to rip it down to the foundation and start again (and again, and again). It’s the muse you’re chasing and she doesn’t linger. 🙂

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