Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

When you’re writing a novel you inevitably find yourself at a certain point where the story takes off. You’ve set up your world and you’ve created your characters. You’ve thrown a few cool conflicts at your hero. He wants something and he can’t have it. He’s going to have to leave the safety of the world he knows and strike out after it. Maybe he has a few false starts. Maybe he turns back a couple times or some other character shows up to shoot him down. But somewhere around page fifty or so of your 200-page novel, your hero is going to make a choice. He’s going to cross the threshold and begin his journey. Woo hoo! It's about time!

I’ve been thinking about crossing the threshold this week because I have just crossed it myself in the book I’m working on for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a cool feeling when you reach this point. It means you’re officially entering the section known as: The Middle of the Book. The place where all the action happens and where the strands you’ve set up in the first part of the book begin to come together.

Starting a book is tricky. There are so many decisions to make. Most of the real work of the first draft is just trying to figure out what’s going on. You’re introducing characters that you, as the writer, don’t really know yet. You’re describing a world that you’re still trying to imagine. It’s possible that you won’t understand it all completely until you reach the end. I heard someone speak at a writers’ conference once about how an editor read her 200-page manuscript and told her that the story didn’t really start until page 100. “Lop that first part off,” the editor said. “And start there.” The writer was horrified, (and I, in the audience, was horrified for her, imagining all the work she must’ve done and thinking about how it was all apparently for nothing). But the writer surprised me by saying that it wasn’t a waste—those 100 pages—they were a necessary part of figuring out that story. It was how she found her way in.

Sometimes you discover that you’re writing a different story from the one you thought. You’ve got a conflict set up and halfway through the conflict morphs into something else. Or maybe you realize the wrong character’s telling your story. This happened to me. I wrote a book from the point of view of a particular girl. I saw it all very clearly in my mind—her conflict, her journey. Then twenty or so pages in this boy showed up out of nowhere and basically took over the story. I kept going with my girl, plodding along, trying to wrest the story back to her. I finished the draft, patted myself on the back, put the manuscript away for a while then read it with a fresh eye. But I couldn’t deny it. This story wasn’t the girl’s at all. It was the boy’s. Never mind 100 pages. I wrote a whole book so I could find my way into the book I was supposed to be writing.

No big deal. It’s all part of the process. Maybe you change your mind about the plot and your narrative takes off in a completely different direction. Maybe you have no idea what the point is until you write the conclusion. Maybe you add characters or cut them. A writer friend of mine has this scene her first draft:

“Where’s Lindsay?”
“Oh, I think she’s not going to be in this book,” I said. “Kevin and Kristy are enough, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, probably.”

Sometimes you add plot strands. Or take strands away when you see they’re not really going anywhere. The point is you’re not going to see most of this until you’re well on your way.

So cross the threshold with your characters and keep moving forward on your journey. Do not go back. Find your way through the story, to the story. You’re going to have to redo a lot of this stuff anyway; you may as well keep going all the way to the end.

Up next: The Mushy Middle: otherwise known as Driving through Texas

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