Returning to an old writing project

I am very fortunate to work in a school that brings in authors for a week-long visit of workshops with teachers and students. Not only the students are inspired by these experience, but I have also been inspired.

Last February, during my first author visit at my school, one of our librarians told the visiting author that I was a writer. The author very kindly asked about my writing. I told her about my Elizabeth I novel. I’d queried it more than a 100 times. I’d had almost 30 requests for the full manuscript. All came back rejections. But when I talked about it, I felt something pulling me, even though I’d written another novel after that.

The author signed my copy of her book and wrote “See you on the bookshelf soon!” It had been almost a year since I’d looked at the Elizabeth novel. But she gave me the push I needed to take another look. I began revising again. It’s amazing how a book can feel so done to you, but time and fresh eyes reveal that it is still a work in progress.

I thought I might write this summer and continue working on it, but summer back in the States was filled with family visits and travel. I wasn’t able to carve time out to write.

In September, another author came for a week-long visit. On his last day, I brought him a book to sign and I asked him about re-querying a manuscript. He graciously answered that question, and asked about the feedback I’d received. After I told him, he quickly sketched out a plot structure on the back of a piece of paper. Then he asked me about the theme of the book, and told me I needed to plant that early on in the story. Subtle, but there. Then, I needed my character to try out all the wrong things before arriving at that right one.

This was a really great way to frame a character’s journey. Let’s say, for example, that your character learns that it’s always best to face up to your problems and take responsibility for your mistakes. So, first they need to try to hide. Then, they need to try to lie. Then, they need to blame someone else. They keep trying out all these failed paths before they get to the right one.

I came home that night and wrote out a bunch of notecards. I wrote all the wrong lessons. All the dead ends. Then I wrote the theme, the real lesson. It was amazing how in just a short conversation, the author I spoke to was able to help me connect to that theme and find ways the character will struggle toward that lesson.

The author, who–like me–writes historical fiction, also had good advice about altering history to suit the narrative. I told him that I researched it so much, that I had a hard time sacrificing the historical record to create more tension or better pacing. He had a good piece of advice. He said to make a list of everything I change as I write. Include it at the end of the book to tell readers where I took liberties or changed the timeline. I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one, I was honoring the changes I made, but I could assuage my guilt by already planning to list any alterations.

I knew I needed to let go of my fear of deviating from the history and the timeline. This isn’t nonfiction, it’s historical fiction. In the Hamilton documentary, Lin-Manuel Miranda talked about going to the writers of 1776 (or was it another musical? I can’t remember exactly) for advice. Hamilton’s life was so big and the research so vast, he couldn’t whittle it down. They told him just to write the parts that make a good story. I’ve thought about that a lot over the past few months.

There was something else I learned from the September author visit, but it wasn’t something he said that afternoon. I’d been reading his books aloud to students. I kept using his chapters in my lessons as beautiful illustrations of the plot diagram. A quick inciting incident to disrupt the norm. A series of 3 or 4 “Oh no!…Phew!” combos, escalating in danger and tension. It created such narrative thrust and energy. I knew that it created tension and a desire to keep reading because students sat, leaning forward in their seats, begging me for one more chapter. I started to get a feeling as a reader for that momentum. I wanted that in my writing.

So, I came home that night and started from the beginning. I gave myself permission to compress time, to move a few events up or down the timeline if needed. I worked that momentum and tension into every chapter, trying to make the events feel like an unstoppable flow or tumble. (I’m not sure if that’s the right image. Hopefully you catch what I’m throwing.)

I also realized there were times I didn’t put Elizabeth in the center of a scene. Usually it was because I didn’t have any historical evidence that she was definitely in a situation like that. I realized that holding back in that way is silly. Despite having a lot of historical record, I don’t know what every dinner was like, every night’s sleep, every lesson with her tutor. She needed to be more than a witness, she needed to be in the center of the action.

Concurrent with all this, I read a middle grade novel that I’d heard good things about. I did not love it. I had to force myself to pick it up and read another chapter. I just didn’t feel any desire to keep reading. I didn’t hate the voice or the narrator. Nothing was turning me off, it’s just that nothing left me wanting to read more. I reflected on what was happening in the writing. What I realized was that every chapter was independent of the one before it. Every chapter was a new day at school with not much build or carry over from the previous one. Like a series of short stories from a year in the life of the same girl.

I realized that what was missing was the building series of complications, one leading to the next. A problem leads to an attempted solution which leads to a new problem, and et cetera. And I realized that my writing may have suffered from a similar problem. Did my plot have a forward motion that grabbed readers and didn’t let them go? Maybe not DaVinci Code levels of hookage, but with at least a forward momentum that the story keeps readers with me.

I’ve been revising since then. But I’ve also been doing a fair amount of adding new scenes and chapters. In addition to the notecards with the failed attempts, I also thought about scenes I would need to show the character failing at those attempts. I thought about experiences that might be missing. There were scenes I’d been thinking about adding for months, but this conversation helped me give me the push I needed.

When I got my copy of the author’s book signed, it read “Write your book.”

I’m on it.

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