The Shape of Things

Post Date: October 15th, 2008

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,829. 2500 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 935

Prognosticators about the economy are saying things will be bad for quite some time. Timetables for exodus from Iraq are spoken of in years. When it comes to solving the problems of a global economy and international diplomacy, one has to think in decades.

I’m beginning to think in a similar timeframe about this novel.

While it doesn’t exist on the level of economic depressions and wars, I have to view this work in progress the same way I view my retirement accounts: in decades. (I didn’t ever think I’d be so thankful to be “only 40”!)

Neither is my work in progress about justice per se, but there’s a whiff of justice around trying and trying and trying again and finally getting someone to care about what you’re writing.

Considering I conceived of this novel in 1994, wrote 100 pages then and the first draft between 2003-2004, and now four years later still tackle it weekly in its third draft, the arc of the creation is indeed long.

There are signposts of hope along the way. In 2007 I entered the first 50 pages of my manuscript in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. This was after trying to enter the year previous and being rejected due to a postmark set one day beyond the required one. A funny thing happened on the way to the packaging place in 2006: since the person behind the counter stamped my envelope on the day of the postmark, I thought I was legit; but because it was after 3:00 p.m., the stamp was set for 3/02/06…My negligence, my procrastination, my fault running myself right up to the deadline like that – never mind the fact that when my manuscript made it to round two where you submit the next 50 pages, I wasn’t even sure if I was sending the competition the right ones that would match up with the original submission (I’d made enough revisions by then to be confused on that point).

But it doesn’t matter. I believe now, after making it to the fourth round of the 2007 competition, that submission in 2006, or winning in 2007, wasn’t meant to be. I realize now that I’ve actually been too early. Making it further along in a competition was all that’s been needed to send me a strong message to keep writing.

Then there’s the stopgap writing – the short story urge that grabs me every once in a while to shake a tale out of my system. The stopgap story (a term coined by Doris Betts) also bends towards hopeful outcomes. I am a finalist in the Writers’ Group of the Triad contest for a story that’s taken three drafts and seen at least three rejections. This contest was judged by Shannon Ravenel, founder of Algonquin Books. I can’t tell you what a green flag this is to keep trying. Rejection sends me back to revision, which gets results, it seems.

Am I a Pollyanna? Well, then, so was MLK. The idea of him thinking justice is the outcome! That the promised land awaits us! The very idea!

A writing colleague and co-author Delia DeCourcy sent me some good advice after my last post that coincides with my advice to myself to be patient:

“I don’t pay attention to word count but shape. I…look at the arc of each part and that is helping me shape each chapter in terms of plot and character. Obviously, there’s no scientific method to writing a book, but maybe if you think more in terms of architecture rather than pages as you revise it will help? As I recall, your novel has numerous narrative strands. You’ve probably already asked the question which ones are necessary? Sometimes that’s hard to discern. Which ones are necessary to show us Daria’s emotional journey, her shift? Are there characters or strands who are showing the same things to us about Daria? Can you cut some of those? The same question goes for scenes. If a scene isn’t revealing something new about the protagonist, it should go. Don’t know how helpful that is. These are some of the things I ask myself as I’m writing. Also, my thesis advisor told our workshop that he wrote a 700 page version of his novel, cut it down to 200, them brought it back up to 400. What if you did an exercise where you forced yourself to piece together a 300 page version of the novel, keeping only the utter essentials? What would you include? What would the shape of that book be?”

Shape. Arc. These are words synonymous with the long-term, global, thematic urges that form a story – that direct a life. I will be thinking forest rather than trees whenever I get discouraged about the years logged in this process. If I’m not doing this for the love of the experience itself, for those transcendent moments you have while writing, then I’m hurrying after a hollow shell of a goal, built on joyless sweat and competitive drive. Who wants to live like that?

Uh, those who have been mangling our stock market lately.

Count me out and in for something bigger.

Today’s Writing Goal: As I move into the second half of the novel, think shape, think scope, think global. I see three acts in this novel and I approach the crisis in the next phase. Make it a good one!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option 1: Making the World a Better Place.

What do you do to make the world a better place? Think of the littlest things you do. Is it saying please and thank you? Is it helping someone who needs it? Is it speaking up when someone is doing something wrong? Is it apologizing for something you have done?

Make a list of things you do to improve the lives of others around you and to make your life kinder, friendlier, and fairer.

Then tell a story about one of these times when you made a good choice. What did you do? What did others do? What did people say? What was the outcome?

Option 2: Naming Justice

What does the word “justice” mean to you? How do you know when something is “just”?

Write about something you have heard about in the news that is just or something that is unjust. How do you know when something is just – or not?

Secondary and Adult

Option 1: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

Do you tend to see the big picture or look at the details of things? Whether you see one or the other or both, the chances are one of your acts of kindness had a broader impact and meaning than you think.

Think about a specific time when you did something kind, fair, or just. Tell that story with as many details as you can, reliving the experience. What was done, said, thought? What was the outcome? What was the purpose behind your action? Why did your action matter? Frame your actions in light of larger reasons, purposes, or movements occurring around you.

Option 2: The Moral Universe

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

What do you think he meant? Explain his thinking in this quotation.

Then respond to it. Explore your opinion about

— whether the world is getting better or worse,
— whether morality is increasing or decreasing, or
— whether you have hope for the future about the goodness of society and its ability to improve.


  1. Vincenzo says:

    “Forest instead of trees,” haha, that is a wonderful analogy. I fully agree, the bigger picture sometimes helps us to put things in perspective, especially when working on a project as grandiose as a 900 page novel. Wise indeed is she who can delay lesser, instantaneous gratification pursuant to greater, long-term goals. It takes an exorbitant amount of dedication to one’s craft to put aside competition and success and truly enjoy the experience itself. I think it shows in the end result as well. There are books we all have read that feel empty, where the characters are shallow and the plot is unconvincing and the setting is bland, but then there are those books that are etched into our memories forever. No one can forget the panic they felt reading through The Tell-Tale Heart, or the horror of O’Brien putting the mask of ravenous rats on Wilson’s face in 1984. These books, I believe, make such an impact on us because their authors wrote them to tell a story they felt the world had to hear, and pushed forward despite and in spite of rejection and depression and despair and, of course, time. I believe you see “forests” instead of “trees” because you have the same passion, and I, as I have yet to obtain such wisdom and patience, have the utmost respect and appreciation towards you for it.

    Glad to see you’re doing well, and can’t wait to read the final product!


  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hey, Vincenzo! Thanks for stopping by!

    You are way too kind to put me in the company of Orwell and Poe. But I’m not going to shy away from showing similar tenacity…maybe with twice the tenacity I’ll make up for lack of talent. I do strive to “etch” a story in readers’ minds, and the challenge is to not take so long in the telling and make every page count.

    I know last we spoke you said you’d put writing on hold, but I sure hope it’s not a permanent vacation. You’ve had visions that need to make it to the page.