On Writing: Look for the boil-over

So, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ll probably notice that I’ve been working on a novel for the past three years. You’ll probably also notice that along about last fall, my tune changed and I was suddenly talking about a novella. And you might ask yourself: How did she get there?

(Yes, I just did that. Sorry, David Byrne).

Anyway, I was merrily revising my novel, trying to finish by the end of last year. I got to Chapter 4 again. There I was in the room with my main character, her father, and another character at the beginning of a very important rite. And the father’s emotional heat signature was lighting up like a Christmas tree. Again. While the ritual was of course important to him, I couldn’t understand the depths of his emotions. I knew immediately that no one else in the room knew of these feelings. No one else felt these feelings; the other two characters were, in fact, trying to pretend they weren’t noticing each other. 😉 I knew the secondary character might know a little more than my main character about her father’s history, but not much more than that.

I had to know why the father was a ticking time bomb of emotion. Why was this so damn important to him, besides the obvious?

So, I asked him. Things started pouring out. At one point I went aside and sternly admonished myself: “DO NOT WRITE A WHOLE DAMN NOVEL ABOUT HIM.”

I’m trying not to. I easily could.

The point is that this character has told me things I never would have guessed about this world, especially as relates to the groundwork for the novel(s). Things that were still nebulous to me now have become astoundingly clear. I know now why all those big, unsaid emotions are about to combust in that room, and furthermore, I know what all of it means for the narrative itself. I’ve uncovered a complex and rich history, far richer than I’d ever dreamed.

Listen to your characters. Train yourself to find that one character in a room who’s at the point of combustion. Look for the boil-over. If the reason isn’t obvious, dig in to those emotions. You might uncover something you never imagined. Your work will be the richer and more resonant for it. I’m an utter convert now in trusting your characters and letting them speak for themselves. (I know many authors who do not view character this way at all. More power to them).

The moment may not be right; it may not be on your timeline, but the rewards will truly be worth the extra time. And of course if you’re on a hard deadline, you really might just have to say no. But in my case, I’m not, so I took the plunge. Very glad, despite all the pushing back of personal deadlines that I did so.

Still, I’m trying to keep this down to a novella. It’s hard. But I do have a novel I need to finish.

Maybe I’ll write another novella about him.



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