Under the Quill

A notebook carries the secrets to a character's journey — what they want, what stands in their way, and how they will resolve it.
A notebook carries the secrets to a character’s journey — what they want, what stands in their way, and how they will resolve it.

“Where have you been?”

Eight months have passed since my last blog post, and hardly anyone has heard a word from that one writer they met that one time — the one who writes for a living by day, and then goes home to write more at night. She’s on social media all the time, so she must still be around here somewhere, but when was the last time anyone saw her on the street?

Yeah, I sort of disappeared from the main stream, floating down a meandering river of themes and subtext.

For nearly two and a half years, I’ve been frequenting these secret societies, where everyone dons a funny hat and picks up a quill pen, then delves deep into the human condition, trying to unravel the mysteries of life.

They’re called writers groups. And while they’re not actually secret societies, it’s amazing to me how many things I’ve been able to learn about writing — particularly writing fiction — every time I go. I’ve heard and read a lot of great interviews with authors and other writerly types lately, too, which have shed light on just how unique the art of the written word is.

We love stories. As human beings, we crave them.

We find stories in books, at the movies, on the web, and on the radio. We’re tuning in so much that many of these channels have gone 24-7.

What’s unique about novels, though, is that when someone reads a book, they bring their own experience to the work. The visuals aren’t directed down to the cue, like they are in movies. The soundbites aren’t edited down to the last line, like they are on radio broadcasts. The words are all there on the page.

With every chapter, the writer lets us listen to the character’s thoughts, see their motivations, and know their innermost desires.

Depending on the point of view, sometimes we learn the antagonist’s motivations too, right down to the childhood memory that set them on an unruly path. When a friendship is formed or broken, we’re reminded of personal histories from our past. When a man and a woman come together, we often bring our own experiences to the encounter, forming our opinions and predictions with both the words the author gives us and ideas of our own.

Of course, if the author of the book has done a good job, we come away with a deep understanding of the world they’ve created. We form relationships with the characters, and we feel like we could call them up on the phone. We empathize with what they’ve had to face on their journey, and we get insight into issues that are larger than ourselves.

With so much to convey, it’s no wonder that it takes so long to write a novel. What surprised me, though, was just how long it takes to edit one.

My novel has been going under the critical pen since April of 2014, when I decided to join a writers group in order to stay motivated. Although my book wasn’t finished then, the biweekly sessions pushed me to keep writing.

Now, I’ve turned to a few more teams of writers, working with them to learn everything I can about the craft of writing fiction. At least once a week, I read half a dozen submissions to give my own critiques, and get a slate of suggestions back for the chapters of my own book.

When you write a novel, not only do you need anchored settings and believable characters, but the plot of the story has to spin like a lubricated wheel.

The dialogue pushes the story forward, and the tension keeps the reader turning the page. Subtext turns up the heat on intimate conversations, and inner dialogue reveals the depths of each character. What each character fears is almost as important as what he or she desires, and every journey has to lead to meaningful transformation. Otherwise, we stand to gain little as a reader.

Distinct voices, pointed reactions, and assertive individuals stand out on the page. And each one has a backstory, complete with flashbacks, memories and, hopefully, big dreams. They move through internal conflicts, external conflicts, and the challenge of changing relationships, giving each character a story arc of their very own. Along the way, they encounter obstacles, have epiphanies, and reconcile their differences, or suffer some unwanted twist of fate.

Even with a reliable narrator, this is a lot for one writer to get down in words. Which is why I’ve put my manuscript through three, now four, critique groups. The story gets better every time it goes through another round of edits, and over time, I believe the book has become something special.

Still, there’s never a shortage of nuances to strive for. I’m so very thankful to have the opportunity to work with so many talented storytellers — both published and unpublished — along the way.


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