Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WIP Diary: Another Brick Wall

Yeah, I seem to keep hitting them with this book. And every time, I think "This is it. I can't figure it out. I'm giving up." And then something will occur to me and I'll figure it out and move on until I slam up against the next brick wall.

One of the things that "occurs" to me is to call my friend Shelley Sykes. Shelley is the award-winning author of the YA mystery For Mike. And mystery writers have a way of looking at a story as a puzzle. So when I've got a particularly nasty snarl, I know I can put it before Shelley and instead of wanting to gouge her eyes out (which is the way I'm feeling about the problem,) Shelley will go "Oh, look! What a marvelous little mess you have presented me with. Let me fix it for you." (Actually, Shelley sounds nothing like that at all, but in essence, this is what she does.)

This current brick wall involved a massive motivational issue with the mother of my MC. Dear old Mama had made a pretty dastardly arrangement. And when you have the mother in your story do something dastardly, she had better have a really supremely excellent reason for it. Mothers--in stories as in many arenas in real life--are held to a certain standard of behavior. When they deviate from that, you've got to make sure it's believable and understandable or you will hear the dreaded phrase "But mothers don't..." It doesn't matter that mothers actually do dastardly things all the time in real life. If you haven't heard this before, here it is: this isn't real life. It's fiction. And fiction has to be more real than real life.

But anyway, because of other events in the story, Mama's motivation fell apart and I couldn't get it back together. Now my initial response to plot problems like this is to write like crazy and introduce all sorts of new elements to try to bolster my point.

This is almost always a disaster. It's like trying to find something you've lost by going out and buying lots of other things you don't really need. Kind of stupid.

So I call Shelley and she can almost tell by the ring tone that I'm calling her with a problem because she goes "What's wrong?" And I try to lay out my problem to her. It's such a jumbled up problem, even I don't understand it while I'm explaining it. But Shelley's going "Mmm. Mmm. Mm hm." And then she says "Let's go back. What was the conversation like, when Mama made this arrangment?"

Now I know that even though this book is in first person from the POV of my MC so that she would not have been present to hear that conversation, I also know that I--as the author--most certainly should know. But I didn't. I hadn't thought it through. Sometimes you need someone to remind you of these things. Sometimes you need someone to tell you that the answer isn't something in front of you that you don't know. It's already there in the story, even if it isn't in the existing text. You just need to go back and find it, rather than creating all kinds of new bits of story.

And that's what Shelley did. She rooted through the musty old root cellar of my brain and pulled out this and that and shook them out and held them up in front of me until she picked up one specific story point and said "How about this?" It was a genuine eureka moment. The solution! Right there. Simple, clean, direct and already part of the story. And while you may not like Mama for what she does, you will understand why she does it. And that's all I need.

Can I just say what a massive feeling of relief that is? When you have got a story issue that is blocking your brain, like a wad of hair in your bathroom sink. (I know, I paint a picture, don't I?) And then whoosh! The drains are clear again and you can think. My friend Shelley. She is like literary Draino.