This week, I'm going to be preparing a Pinterest Board of suggestions for a Book Club discussion of my Left by the Side of the Road.
As usual, I want to start with an explanation of where my ideas came from. Back in the summer of 2011, I realized that I wasn't doing any novel writing. I didn't have writer's block, as such, because I could whip out a blog post without trouble. It was the new book that was giving me trouble. I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
The story of the Gideonites and the Port Royal Experiment had no lack of colorful characters. It's full of fascinating people. It had all kinds of exotic scenery—swamps, pluff mud, tropical vegetation, glorious sunrises, sandy ocean beaches. It had drama—a background of America's Civil War, heroic acts of bravery, enormous pain and suffering, and a life-changing struggle for freedom. Why, then, couldn't I make any progress with the book? The story was simply too big to handle.
But, oh, how hard it was to cut out all those great tidbits. I had what amounted to half a book already written — some 50,000 words I had created during the past year's National Novel Writing Month. The chapters were just sitting there, waiting, but I couldn't tell where they were going next. A couple of weeks later, I started cutting hunks out of those chapters. The remaining 35,000 words were more coherent, but the direction was still unclear.
Eventually, of course, I recognized my own errors. I was writing like a historian. Now, there's nothing wrong with being a historian. It's what I am by training and experience. I want to know exactly what happened, why it happened, who all was involved, when and where it happened (all the usual journalist's questions), as well as what were the underlying causes and results. All legitimate questions. All important. All calling for more research. And nothing, NOTHING, that has to do with the nature of a novel.
The light clicked on first while I was discussing creating a press release. "Summarize your plot in a single sentence. Then expand it to two sentences. Make the reader want to know what's going to happen." I couldn't do it—because I didn't really have a plot. I was just describing events, hoping that they would magically arrange themselves into an acceptable story. So far, they weren't showing any signs of being able to do that on their own. So I had 35,000 words, but they weren't the beginning of a novel.
For a novel, I had to build a plot, one with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. It needed a theme, a message, a reason for its existence. It needed one main character—someone with back story, a character with a likeable personality but a few inner quirks, a character with whom the reader could identify. That character needed a goal that was important not only to her but to the reader, and she needed an adversary that stood in the way of reaching that goal. The story needed tension, a crisis (or two or three), and a resolution that would be not necessarily happy but reasonable in the light of all that went before.
The solution was obvious but too drastic to contemplate. Instead of just trashing the project, I stepped away from it for a while and sought my own guru—someone who could tell me what to do to salvage the idea. I've just finished reading a wonderful book: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.* He offers a step by step guide for building the underlying structure of a novel. As I read, I kept a notepad at hand, where I scratched out ideas of how I could take my historical knowledge and mold it into a workable plot outline. And suddenly my story did arrange itself. Once I had the main structural elements in place, the people, the places, and the events made sense.
The concept of the book? Rejuvenated! The 35,000 words? I removed over half of them from the manuscript, but they were not forgotten. I couldn't bear to throw them out. And eventually they became the basis for my book of short stories, "Left by the Side of the Road."