Retreat and advance

{ Thursday, December 27, 2007 }

My friend Amy and I have staged a writer's retreat for ourselves in the days following Christmas. We've rented a cabin near Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri and have spent the past couple of days making real progress on our novels.

Coming into this trip, I was stuck in a tight corner. I've done all this research and pages and pages of writing about the characters and I had outlined the story and knew what was supposed to happen. I just didn't know how to write the story. My pile of false starts was beginning to distress me.

So my goal for this retreat was to solve the three big problems that had backed me into the corner: (1) How to structure this story so that all the things I want to fit in it might make sense. (2) How to layer the cultural and historical context -- both in the larger sense of the 1970s era and the United States, and in the smaller sense of the family and their collective memories -- into the major scenes so that I don't bog down in exposition. (3) The voice.

I'm so scared of overpromising! I mean, I've been working on this story for so long without anything readable coming out. But I'm no longer worried by problems #1 and #2. My answer: I need to play to my strengths. I'm a strong portraitist. Unlike the vignettes in My Other Body, which were based on static memory, those in the [Title Goes Here!] book can include any useful detail and movement in time and space that I want. A guiding principle is to balance the size, color, placement, luminosity, and transparence of the details.

I know "portrait" sounds flat. I'm talking about structural design and working method, though. I'm working with a lot of detail here, and I know I'll get lost if I try to string the content together linearly, starting with sentences. I need to start by visualizing a group of details as a finished scene - a portrait - so that I can see the balance and placement of details, the massive elements and the light brushstrokes.

Today I've been framing out scenes, collecting and organizing details. So far this is working really well. I can finally tell when details need to be laid into previous scenes, and which are more important, and where dialogue will be the best way to show an element, where flashback, where narrative, where description, where metaphor. I hope to finish framing out all the scenes tonight, and if I'm not totally wasted when that's finished, I want to start framing out the next three books - the big pieces, anyway - to give myself a chance to see colors and forms I want to pick up in the first book.

And in the early morning, if it's not raining, I'll walk to the lake and watch hawks in the trees. In the quietest place I can find, I'll shut down the voices in my head and just... listen.

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