Big girls don’t cry, they don’t whine, and they sure don’t pride. I need a new verb to reform those of us with active egos (and who happen to be overhauling novels).
Active Ego says, “Your novel is fine as is! It’s character driven, it’s full of good scenes, it’s got that slow, realistic climb to the crisis.” Ego thinks I can argue this because I was raised by Harper Lee, who according to author of Mockingbird, Charles J. Shields, handed her editor a massive mess of anecdotes, not a story. When I say, “raised by Harper Lee,” I mean it: not only did this book become my instant favorite at age 14 but I read and re-read it many, many times to teach it to students over the years. So it’s a bit of a Bible to me. You can tell looking at the finished novel that Lee loves character and a thoughtful unraveling of plot. She loves every tiny moment that every secondary or tertiary member of Maycomb offers. How about Walter Cunningham; how about Calpurnia? Mrs. Dubose? Aunt Alexandra? How about townsfolk who serve up local flavor full of incisive themes, such as Mr. Dolphus Raymond: a man “guilty” of miscegenation and pretending drunkenness because “it helps folks if they can latch on to a reason” why a white man would marry a black woman.
I adore those languourous passages of character development, slowly unfolding like a humid summer day. She has many a side trail to show us Scout and Jem’s little world, rich with love and hate and courage and racism. Active ego says, “Lee’s your literary hero; it’s okay to follow her lead!”
But I’m not writing an adult novel with a child protagonist. I’m writing YA. So what do the people want? Big girls must ask.
What the YA reader wants is story, glorious story, moving quickly, and not one you have to hunt or wait for. Quests and missions must move at a good pace–not necessarily breakneck–then head somewhere satisfying. Even if my protagonist plows along in some general direction with lots of interesting side trails, most of us aren’t going to stick around to see the end of that journey. What with our limited time and attention spans, the average reader is more likely to prefer speed, high drama, and compelling action. Plus, I haven’t heard rumors of a Slow Read Movement just yet.
Big girls must face this fact and follow good advice. I’ve called upon the talents of several excellent, critical readers–friends, family, writing group members–many of whom are quite well-read in a variety of genres. I had my economics and history and nonfiction reading crew; those who prefer thrillers and sci fi; those who like more amorphous, character-driven narrative. Literary readers. Whatever they’re calling chick lit now readers. I heard from a few that the throughline needed clarity; that the story didn’t really take off till a certain point, while hearing from others that the quirky band of characters and its ringleader, Wendy, kept them occupied. Then a new reader took up my manuscript with fresh eyes and said two key words: external conflict. And I went back to my story and saw that there were various clashes that surged like sparklers and soon burnt out.
If you commit to an E.C., there must be a significant clash. It must motivate the character and direct the narrative. stream through the narrative, keeping readers there to find out what happens next.
YA demands a clear narrative that clings to the big E.C. and doesn’t let go.
Now I’m mapping internal and external conflicts of the protagonist in every scene using index cards I can revise and shuffle. I pose the conflicts as questions Wendy must answer with her actions. I color code the E.C. and the I.C. inside my manuscript as Wendy faces both throughout the narrative. I’ve moved key scenes from the middle or last third to the front. I’ve written new scenes. And through it all, Wendy’s making a commitment to her goals with more intensity and follow through so that readers will want to follow her.
Some authors would have outlined from the start, but that’s not how my mind works. I tend to write and think in concrete, random ways: specific scenes and reams of dialogue inundate me, and they all connect to one another in one beauteous, tangled web. So if I start all webby, I must end sequential. And Ego may say, “That’s just not my style to outline,” but guess what? I’m using the concrete, fluid method of index cards, which feels more tangible and full of possibilities, which is how I like to write my scenes. Now there is method in my concrete random madness. Now there’s an outline, slowly growing on my terms.
Ripping a manuscript limb from limb is, to say the least, humbling. Ain’t no room for ego in that mess. First I cut the 40,000 words, and for that, I patted myself on the back. But that wasn’t enough. What I’m doing now is what big girls must do if they want to finish strong.
— Who is your literary hero, and how has s/he influenced your writing? Find a passage that still rings in your head when you’re talking or writing. The quotable passage may well be speaking to your writing. How?
— How do the characters of your favorite novel both express personality and “local flavor” while also pursuing a compelling goal? Find a moment in the story when characters are expressing these three elements of story (characterization, setting, plot) simultaneously.
— Flip through To Kill a Mockingbird or another favorite classic novel and land on a scene. List the external conflict, the internal conflict, and the two answers that the scene gives.
— Do you outline or do you free write? Do you web, draw, color code, or use cards? How do you structure a large piece of writing? Why do you think this method works for you?
— What is Scout’s internal and external conflict throughout the novel? Atticus’ and Jem’s?