Our new topic at the Girlfriends Book Club is writing through the corn maze and how we handle stories that start in one place but end up somewhere else. For me, unexpected discovery—which includes wrong turns, false starts, and dead ends—is the true joy of writing fiction. It’s how I unearth the real story, often hiding outside my carefully constructed comfort zone. The story I end up writing is never the story I started.
My debut, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, began life with a different hero…until I imagined a guy called James Nealy speeding through Chicago at night in a convertible Alfa Romeo, trying to outrun his obsessive-compulsive disorder. I never used that scene, but it led me to James. Once I found him, I finally understood the story I had been working on for years.
Next up? THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which came to me as a ghost story—with historical and contemporary timelines. It hit the bookstores as a novel about two broken families healing each other in a quiet corner of rural North Carolina. Not a ghost in sight. Between the first and the second drafts, I dumped 90% of the story and my original heroine.
Were all those earlier versions and ideas wasted? No, because this appears to be part of my process. Do I wish I could sit down and write a clean story from point A to point B? Of course—think of the money I’d save on gin and plant retail therapy. But my multi-layered, damaged characters don’t come to me overnight. I have a process; it’s messy; it seems to work.
Take my current manuscript…
Fifteen months ago, sitting at a traffic light listening to church bells, I had an epiphany: Novel three would be about a marriage in crisis. I flushed out my hero—a barefooted, ripped jeans musician who owned a recording studio on the outskirts of Chapel Hill—and felt rather smug. I soooo had this thing nailed. A novel a year? Piff! Easy-peasy.
Two weeks tomorrow I will hand in the manuscript that evolved out of that idea: a father/son story. My hero, an upper class Brit, is an emotionally repressed bond trader who has an ambivalent relationship to music and would die rather than wear anything ripped. He and his family live in the heart of historic Durham, in a hidden house on the edge of Duke Forest.
Nothing has stayed the same: not the setting; not the characters; not the plot. Looking back, I can’t see the path that led from the first version of chapter one to the latest version of the epilogue. It’s buried beneath rewrites, gut instinct, ideas spawned of research, a spiffy, color-coded scene-by-scene outline that I abandoned months ago…and the most important element of all—reader feedback. I’m blessed to have trusted early readers and a kick-ass editor, all of whom help guide my stories in directions I haven’t even glimpsed.
For me, writing a novel is like nurturing a community garden: I do the back-breaking planting, but it takes a village to water and weed and get that thing into shape. You never have control with a garden, either. Plants die or self-seed in unexpected places as the garden develops its own character—no matter what you do. (Here's my main garden, which started life as an English rose bed. That still cracks me up. What was I thinking?!)
Yesterday one of my non-writer friends said, “You’re nearly done with novel three. How exciting!” My response? “No, I’m just beginning, because the real magic happens when my editor gets her hands on the story.” She’ll see new themes and layers, and the story will shift even further from its starting point—and become richer.
What do you think about revision, rewrites, false starts, and U-turns? Love them? Hate them?
Barbara Claypole White is the author of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, which won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, which was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick, is the story of two broken families coming together to heal in rural North Carolina.