Thursday, July 10, 2014

The A-MAZE-ment of Writing

 by Barbara Claypole White



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?

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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

Visit her at barbaraclaypolewhite.com, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

20 comments:

  1. Wow, this is fascinating! I'd love to know how you went from barefoot ripped jeans musician to uptight Brit :) But I get it... My fiction takes twists and turns too, and often not how I anticipated, but that magical element is also one of my favorite parts.
    -Dana

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    1. I think part of it was panicking about my deadline and deciding I needed to understand my hero's background (I'm a Brit--although not an uptight one!) And then Felix just took over. :)

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  2. Well, apparently pressure suits you, Barbara! What a thoughtful, well-written post about process. You get my gold star for the day for insight and organized thinking, even if means starting over... and over... BTW, that's how much TUG stuck with me, as I was reading I was saying, "I don't remember a scene like that with James..." However, I could certainly see how it inspired you. Great post!

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    1. Organized thinking?! (Snorts out her coffee!) xox

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  3. A book a year. Ha! That is funny. What kills me is I believe the fallacy every time. I've got it all figured out. Wrong...again Great piece. Love the garden/village image. So true. And you do have a beautiful garden.

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl. Yup, my gardens keep me sane. Well…

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  4. Lovely post. I love having a peek into writers' processes.

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  5. What a great, inspirational peek into your process. Here's the thing, though--I'm a terrible gardener! I hope that doesn't mean that I'm a terrible writer, and--if I can just jump metaphors here--I have so much trouble embracing the maze and believing that I will ever, ever find the cheese at the end. Kudos to you for finding your way through with such style!

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  6. Wonderful post, Barbara!
    I love the thought that ideas, like plants, self-seed in unexpected places and develop into their own characters.

    Really looking forward to novel #3!! :-)

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  7. Fabulous writing about the writing process here, Barbara. I feel it's a privilege to watch it all unfold. And Novel 3 is almost here . . . soon to be blooming garden-like all over the place! Well done, girlfriend.

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  8. LOL. Plant retail therapy. I love it! Great post, Barbara. I so agree. The real works (and the fun for me) begins with rewrites!

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    1. Plant retail therapy is the BEST. Well, book retail therapy might be, but…

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  9. You sound as if you'd peeked into my head, Barbara. Oh, the iterations of an idea, a plot, the characters, from that epiphany at the stoplight to the finished, send-to-editor manuscript. Slash, cut, add, change, drop the beginning, start at the end. Oh, yeah.

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  10. Great post! Even with an outline, my favorite part of writing is getting to know the characters, chapter by chapter. Those moments when I stop writing and say, hey, I didn't know that. What do you suppose that means? All through the process, I keep a Notes doc. After I write to the end, I go back to the beginning of the Notes and say, "That didn't happen, that didn't happen, that didn't happen."

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    1. I love that idea--going back to see what you abandoned!

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