Perspective: On the Inside Looking Out

Image result for revisionAt the end of June I began work on another revision of my novel to incorporate what I learned at UW Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake in Laurie Scheer’s class, Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend this class for everyone working on a novel or screenplay, but you could also read Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend it. The research you do will open your eyes to what has been done before and how you can offer something new in your genre. My research led to my learning a number of lessons not only in writing but also about life. One of those lessons involves perspective.

I’m a slow writer. Mostly when I revise, I weigh the words and images I put on the page, but even when I’m composing my first draft I struggle with a number of problems, chiefly point of view. Christine DeSmet, best-selling author and writing teacher extraordinaire, read and critiqued my entire first draft, God bless her. I don’t know how she could stand it! I can’t tell you how often she put in her notes, “You’ve switched point of view here.”  It must have been vexing. I was slow to see the difference, I think, because I was in l love with the writing process, rather than trying to see from a character’s point of view and only that character’s point of view. Now I understand whose point of view carries a scene and why and how not to switch point of view even as I write my first drafts.

The work I’ve been doing lately has to do with point of view, but it goes deeper than I thought before. It involves seeing the world of my story from the perspective of each character, and it is slow going. Since I delved more deeply into the genre of my book, I realized that my main character wasn’t strong enough. She needed to carry the story much more than she had before. That meant I had to understand her world as she did, to understand and love and hate the people and places she does. I had to feel what her home means to her, what falling in love for the first time feels like, what feeling betrayed feels like, all those things from her point of view, her perspective. I’ve had to imagine what life would have been like when being unmarried at 19 dubbed you a spinster, when wearing trousers rather than a corset and dress made you provocative and unladylike, when the only prospects of survival for a young lady were marriage or inheriting a large amount of money.

I’ve also imagined what living at a time when the world as you  knew it had collapsed and the societal structure was either non-existent or changed so as to be unrecognizable. You see my book is set in 1869 Charleston, South Carolina, so I try to delve into what society might have been like then, what relationships between women might have been like, both between white women and between white and African American women. To  see from Josiah’s perspective, I’ve tried to understand PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the struggle to live life normally after witnessing the unspeakable horrors of war. Back then PTSD was called “soldier’s heart” or “nostalgia.” I’ve tried to inhabit that world as much as possible, but not until I took Laurie’s class did I feel I could crawl beneath my characters’ skins and see their world from their perspectives.

Often I don’t take the time to look at life from a new perspective. I drive the same route to work each day. I travel the same path when I go for my morning runs with Stella. I drink the same basic smoothie recipe on a daily basis. To change that, something must jar me out of my routine. That’s what this class did for me. Today when I was out for my run, I decided to try something different. In my book my main character Faith has a special oak tree which she has considered hers since she was a child. It is a live oak, a big one that I imagine looks like the Angel Oak  on John’s Island in South Carolina. She goes there when she needs to think or be alone. I don’t have a special tree where I go to think, but a very old white oak tree stands in front of my house. At one time I imagine it might have been someone’s special tree because it survived standing in the middle of a farm field rather than being chopped down for fire wood.

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Today when I was walking back home after my run, I decided to include a picture of this tree in this post. That is it to the left. Since I’ve been thinking of perspective, however, I wanted to do something else, too.  I wanted to climb this tree to get Faith’s perspective from inside a tree. As a child I climbed trees,  but that was a long time ago. I climbed up to the first limb, but I chickened out going any higher. My middle name is not Grace for a reason. One day I still might climb it, but not on the spur of the moment when my husband is not around to rescue me if I can’t get down. So I did what I think is the next best thing. I took several pictures from beneath the tree looking up into the branches as though I were about to climb it. Below you’ll see what that looks like. Quite a different feel from the one above, wouldn’t you say?

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Before this revision of my book, I was looking at the world of my story as I always had, from afar. I was looking AT it rather than being inside the story looking out from it. Before I was telling the story, reporting it rather than inhabiting it with my characters. To understand my characters and what they see and feel, I’ve learned I must see from the perspective of each of them . They will show me what is important to them. I must be present in the story with them and feel what they do, see what they do, love and hate what they do. I must be with them in their world rather than looking at it from afar.

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My Writing Forecast

Storm Clouds

Great Plains clouds rolled in this morning like smoke billowing from a great fire dragging their ragged edged cousins along behind them. Rain and storms have arrived this morning and will develop again later today, but that is not unusual here in June. Weather in the Midwest is rarely settled or predictable. One day the weather will be fine and sunny with no humidity, still a source of wonder for this Southerner even after nearly twenty years here. In a matter of a day or even a few hours, however, the temperature and the due point rise making the air sticky and uncomfortable, bringing storms in their wake, a familiar pattern I recognize.

The unpredictable and changeable nature of the weather here mirrors my writing life. Turmoil about whether my writing is good enough, whether I will finish my novel to my satisfaction, whether I will one day be published affects my mood on a daily basis. I’m sure all artists suffer the same angst. I think overcoming my doubts and fears is a process, one which all writers must work through to become healthy and productive. Learning to manage writing and living in the world is a struggle, one all writers are familiar, but because I have the summer off from my job, I have the luxury of tackling my writing full time right now, and I plan to take full advantage of my time. After a wonderful week last week at Write- by-the-Lake in Madison, Wisconsin, under the tutelage of Laurie Scheer, Media Goddess, I’ve committed to two things for the summer: being healthy and being a productive writer. Today was the first day to put my plans into action.Stella and Me after a Run

My day started with a two mile run with Stella, my running partner (See above photo). We managed to outrun the rain today but only just. I can’t help noticing the metaphor there. I often feel just ahead of my doubts and feelings of inadequacy, but I managed to finish the run and write this blog post and work on my novel which (Laurie if you’re reading this) WILL be published soon! The trick to success, I think, whether it is in being healthy or being productive at work or writing is having a plan and putting the plan into action. I have to block out time to do what is important, make time to reach my goals and achieve what sometimes seems impossible. I outran my doubts today just as I outran the weather. Each day I just have to realize that though there will be stormy days full of rain in this writing life, they are necessary because the rain yields beautiful results. Write on people!Peonies in Celadon vase

Seven Things I learned at Write by the Lake Workshop and Retreat

Revision is Hard!

Everyone who writes must revise. It is a universal problem we writers have that we can’t see the errors in our writing or we are so involved in our writing we can’t see when we aren’t saying what we think we are saying. That is why I signed up for a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, last week called Write by the Lake. I’m FINALLY finished writing my book and knew it was time to revise it, but I had no idea where to begin.

I applied to be in Christine Desmet’s master class called Finish, Polish, Publish—Mainstream, Literary, Genre novels. Best decision I ever made. Not only did I meet other writers who were in the same position of revising their pages, but we also were at the same stage of our writing journey and understood the struggles each other faced in the revision process. I never realized how critical that understanding was until this week. All of us were writing different books and fleshing out different genres, but we were tackling the same basic elements in our writing. So here is what I’m working on for the rest of the summer!

What I Learned About Revising My Book

  1. Make Setting Vivid: My setting needed to be almost another character because the book hinges around saving Winterhaven, my main character’s home. I had description in there, but it wasn’t full and lush. I am working on adding more setting details to my book so readers experience the setting with all their senses. I want them to know it as well as they know the characters in my book.
  2. My villain must be in the action throughout the book: My villain is baaad, really baaad. I need to give him more time on the pages so readers can see all aspects of his character, even his tender side. He also must be more involved in the trouble my main character faces. I want him to be a well-rounded character, and I want him to be human rather than a cartoon villain. I’m working on all that.
  3. Backloading: I have learned about this term before, but it didn’t really sink in until this week! I think I must be thick or hadn’t reached the point where backloading mattered. Anyway, I am trying to end my sentences and paragraphs with a “loaded” word. For instance, when I am describing the house in my book on the opening page, I say this: “Deep green ivy crept up the red bricks and into the cracks between the windows and under the eaves where the lead flashing had been removed to make bullets for Confederate guns.” I ended with “guns.” That’s backloading, ending sentences or paragraphs with strong words to add emphasis and psychological impact.
  4. Hooking my reader: This is a tough one, but I’m working on it. To hook the reader, the writer must end the scene or the chapter at a suspenseful or dramatic point. The writer must make the reader want to read on. For example, I originally ended my first scene with this line: “He tipped his hat to her, his expression smug, then cantered back down the sand drive toward River Road.” Bleh!!!! I revised it this way: “I’ll go, Thomas, but this isn’t over.” Much better!
  5. Clear the Clutter: Writing is ALL about voice, and voice is a tough nut to crack. One of the ways to improve your voice is to cut the clutter words from your writing. Words like felt, so, then, smiled, half-smiled, turns, slowly, walked, said, replied, thought, wondered, seems, just. The list goes on. I wasn’t even aware I was using some of these words until my classmates circled them! Do searches for words like this you haven’t even noticed you overused. I bet you’ll be surprised! I was. There’s a lot more to clutter than this, but if you do a Google search for cutting clutter from writing, you’ll have many articles to choose from which help with the concept.
  6. Objects: Make sure the objects you introduce in your book have significance. I introduced a bracelet in my book, but I realized it has no significance. I’ll write it out of my book, but later (about half way) in the story I introduce a handkerchief that my main character embroidered as a child. On her wedding day her nanny gives her the handkerchief back. It comes to represent my main character’s struggles and her home and the people who believe in her, and I need to play up its significance in the story.
  7. Endings: Beginning your book at the right place is important as everyone knows, but ending it at the right point is also important. My book’s last scene is very dramatic: it’s a shootout in which the bad guy is shot, but so is the heroine. OH, NO! Oh, yes. I don’t have enough of a resolution at the end to satisfy readers. Those who read it wanted to know more about the lives of the people who were involved in the story, so I need an epilogue. Christine suggested a point a couple of years from the last scene for the epilogue, so I need to write a bit more for my characters at a future date to complete my story. I’m working on that as well.

Attend a Writing Conference

If you are a writer serious about your craft and haven’t attended a writing conference before, I urge you to sign up for one as soon as possible, preferably one of the UW Madison Continuing Studies conferences like I did. I’m partial to those. I found my voice there. Here’s the link. http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/writing/wbtl/index.html  Christine Desmet is an awesome teacher and writer as are Laurie Scheer and Bridget Birdsall, the other members of the staff there. They are all published writers. In fact, Christine just signed a three book deal! Her first book of the three comes out in September. They are cozy mysteries set in Door County, Wisconsin, the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Here’s her website if you’d like to keep up with her release dates and any other news she might share! http://christinedesmet.wordpress.com/

Attend a writing conference at least once. I promise you will be inspired and energized afterwards.You will take your writing to the next level and spend quality time with wonderful people who think the way you do. Feeling like you’re among your own people is invaluable!