Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#WW - What's it really about, anyway?

#WRITERWEDNESDAY

Today we're going to talk about a really common problem - skimming the surface. We're all guilty of it and anyone who claims they aren't is a damn liar, in my opinion. :-) Doesn't mean we don't fix it, of course, either now or after the first, second, or...gasp...third draft. Or maybe an editor will point it out. But for those of you familiar with the terms "emotional punch" or nebulous reactions like "there was just something missing" or "it just didn't stand out enough for me"...this might be contributing to the problem. Of course several things might be the culprit, but I'm in the throes of a full-on deadline push and this is the topic that jumped out at me.

You have to get beneath the surface. It is what takes a perfectly good-sounding conflict and makes it beautifully complex and complicated. You've heard me quote two people lots of times before - Kate Walker says "keep it simple, go deep". Michelle Styles says it's not about adding more conflict, but complicating the conflict you have. Same principle. Take your core conflict and really, really dig deep.

As I write my current WIP, I am constantly aware that there is more going on than it appears. It's why my first go at this book flopped and I had to start over. You see there's an "issue" in this book and I had mistakenly made it the conflict as well. But it's more than that. I won't go so far as to say I could take this "issue" out because it is meshed in with WHY the characters feel the way they do. But I can't just say "this is her issue and he's afraid of it" as a conflict. It is so much more than that.

What's Clay REALLY afraid of? It's more than Meg's past. It's so much deeper than that, and I keep forgetting it as I rush to put down the words. It's what her past MEANS that creates his biggest problem. What does Meg want? She wants a lot of things and she doesn't quite realize that the person standing in the way the most is herself. She thinks she is not afraid but she is. She's terrified. And so she pushes people away. She's been pushing them away for MONTHS. The closest she's come to letting anyone in is Clay - and now she's pretty sure that it was a mistake.

And have I succeeded in putting that on the page? Sometimes. Definitely not enough. Thankfully I'm finishing up the first draft and will spend some time going through and layering. Even then it might not be enough - we'll have to wait to see what my editor says.

Julie Cohen did a post a while back on solving plot problems, and Susan Meier did the same thing during NaNo when she was mentoring the loop at eharlequin. You make a list of solutions. The first items are the obvious. But then you start going deeper. Sounding crazier. Really, really grasping at straws. And then finally, when you think this is a really, really dumb exercise, you hit on the right answer and things fall into place.

Thank God, sometimes it doesn't take a very long list. But it's training your mind to look for the unexpected and it doesn't just work with plot - it works with character motivations and conflict too. Don't take the easy way out. Don't just skim the surface. Look beneath it. Sure, the water might be murky and things might seem a little contorted. That's brilliant! Because people aren't easy, they're not simple. They're murky and contorted and complicated and so are their emotions.

I have a great CP who points out where I'm missing bits and asks questions. Like - yes, he's afraid, but what is he REALLY afraid of? What do they really want? And the answers can be complicated. Meg wants Clay. She's always wanted him. And now she's afraid to take him, even when he's sooooo close. She is one mixed up chick.

To demonstrate, here's a little bit from my WIP with a comment from Michelle in italics:

“This…” she swept her hand down at her dress. “This is not the real me, Clay. It was a mistake for me to pretend. You asked me to go and I had some silly idea to go all out. But the makeup and dress and high heels…it’s an act. If you’d left me at the door I’d be in flannel sleep pants and a t-shirt by now.”



“And that’d be sexy as hell,” he answered. “Good God, Meg, give me some credit. I’ve known you for years. I know this isn’t normal for you. Maybe that’s why it hit me so hard.” He smiled, a sexy little up-turn of his lips. “Discovering you’re a girl was more than I bargained for.”


“I don’t want…”


The smile faded. “Don’t want me? You did a damn good job making it seem like you did.”


Frustration began to bubble. “Stop finishing my sentences. You’ve got it all wrong, don’t you see? It’s not just the dress that’s not me, it’s…it’s…”


Her lip wobbled. She would not cry, dammit. Not in front of Clay, not over this. Why is it worse for her, knowing/thinking it is the pretend woman? And not her as a personality? That he didn’t think about her as a woman until today? You can go deeper with the emotions. Why does she think he is so shallow? Why does pushing him away like this make sense? It is the motivation here and you can layer.


She swallowed, blinked, breathed. “The Meg who went away…not all of her came back, Clay. There are parts of me that’ll never come back. Some more obvious than others.”


At first glance the paragraphs don't look so bad, right? Here's the altered version:

Frustration began to bubble. “Stop finishing my sentences. You’ve got it all wrong, don’t you see? It’s not just the dress that’s not me, it’s…it’s…”



Her lip wobbled. She would not cry, dammit. Not in front of Clay, not over this. He truly hadn’t seen her as a woman until today. And it had taken her pretending to be someone else to make it happen. She felt old dreams shatter, the pieces dropping around her feet. Clay would never love her, and she had to stop this insanity now. If she couldn’t have all of him, she at least wanted to keep his friendship.


She swallowed, blinked, breathed. “The Meg who went away…not all of her came back, Clay. There are parts of me that’ll never come back. Some more obvious than others.”

Maybe those few lines don't seem to change much, but cumulatively it's helped build a thread that it's more important - for both of them - to preserve their friendship even if they really do not understand each other right now. She is sure that Clay will never love her (she's wrong).  She is positive the only reason he kissed her was because he'd been attracted to someone other than the "real" her (she's wrong again). All of it works to foreshadow what is coming ahead and reinforces what's come before. And the trouble lies in knowing these things in your head, but not getting them on the page for the reader. By the way - the questions that weren't answered in that paragraph? They're answered further on. It's sometimes about finding just the right spot for the reaction.
 
And from Clay's POV:
 
When she’d rested her head on his shoulder as they’d danced she’d started something that he’d finished on her porch step. He was attracted to Megan Briggs. It was the damnedest thing. What shook him right to the bottom of his shoes was that it felt so right. But what else? He nearly destroyed a friendship? With Meg, getting involved means a load of things change. It is easier for him to take a step back. Go deeper. What is at stake here for him? Why does he feel relief and it is about more than her physical appearance? Why might he feel hurt that she thinks he could  be that shallow?
And the expanded version:
When she’d rested her head on his shoulder as they’d danced she’d started something that he’d finished on her porch step. He was attracted to Megan Briggs. It was the damnedest thing. What shook him right to the bottom of his shoes was that it felt so right.


It had felt like everything was clicking into place until the moment she’d frozen in his arms. In a way he was glad she’d put on the brakes. Sex would ruin their friendship, and that was the last thing Clay wanted. As he looked at her now, he knew it was more. Meg was scared. For all her protests to the contrary, Meg was still scared to death and pushing her into something based on hormones and attraction would only hurt them both.

How does this change things? Well, it sets things up so that the reader understands when Clay sacrifices a bit of himself. He puts on the brakes to protect her. And he lets her think less of him - at least for the time being - for the sake of keeping their friendship. And it also gives a little bit of insight into Meg through another character's eyes. Same deal too - the other questions Michelle asked are filtered in through the whole scene.
 
Anyway, have a look at your current WIP or think about it as you're writing today. And ask yourself - not just about the big story questions but the little reactions - what this really about for him/her?
 
The answers might just surprise you. And delight your readers.
 
See you next Wednesday.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks, Donna, for going into detail about this -- your example before and after really go that extra mile to get your point across. This is perfectly timed, and I'm totally going to try your suggestions here.
    Thanks, again. Look forward to more of your #WW posts. Never ceases to amaze me how willing romance writers are, to help others develop their craft xx

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  2. This is an excellent post! I'm facing this same problem with my wip. It's all in my head, but getting the details down on the page is so much harder. Thanks for the examples; they do a great job of illustrating your point.

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  3. Great blog, Donna. You're right -depth is super important. Great examples as well. Nothing gets a point across like a good example to illustrate!

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  4. oh yes, great post. I'm in a similar quandary with my hero and heroine, and need to dig deeper!

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  5. Thanks for the info on the inner workings of a story.

    And for doing #WW.

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  6. excellent post - thanks for sharing! Caroline x

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  7. Thanks, Donna. That's an excellent post. And your examples were really helpful. Funny what a few tweaks can do.

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  8. Great post, Donna! I really need to dig deeper with my WIP. The examples really help.

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  9. Thanks Donna, the before and after explained a lot.

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  10. Great post. Thanks Donna!

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  11. Great post! Off to throw some searching questions as my wip. Damn, emotional depth is hard.

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