Lightbulb Moments

on August 5, 2010

I love going to conference workshops, but unfortunately rarely have the time to do so. I went to two-and-a-half this year, other than presenting my own on “Rule Breaking.” I always learn something new, and this year was no exception.

The workshop was Fire in Fiction presented by Donald Maass. I wasn’t planning on staying–I thought it was a rehash of the workshop he gave last year (which I had to leave at the midpoint)–but fortunately, the topic was “scenes” (last year was character.) Near the beginning, he said one thing that ignited the lightbulb in my brain about the problem I’m having in my current WIP, KISS ME, KILL ME.

He asked if anyone had a scene that fell flat. I sure did. Or so I thought.

His suggestion was to take the turning point in the scene, probably around the middle of the scene, and figure out how the character gets to that point. Who was she before the turning point? How does she grow or change? How does she see herself after the turning point?

He said a lot of stuff after that which I’m sure everyone else appreciated, but I kind of ignored it because he wanted everyone to participate in an exercise, and I loathe writing exercises. But his comment got me thinking about the scene I was stuck in before I went to RWA. I realized that I was stuck because there was no character change–nothing we didn’t already no. There was no big reveal, no real turning point. While it was an investigative scene and had appropriate introspection that both paralleled and opposed my heroine’s teenage years, it was flat. Boring (except for clues, which were more obvious because the scene was so damn boring.)

So I mulled over WHY. It’s a necessary scene. In fact, it sets up the entire investigation, provides clues for the characters as they begin the search for a missing teen-ager. But it’s . . . blah. Flat. BORRRRRRING. I couldn’t figure out why then (and no, I did not consider that doing the exercise might have HELPED; in fact, it would have probably prolonged my agony!) but the entire opening segment of fifty pages played through my head as I tried to figure out why I couldn’t write past this one scene.

On Monday, I was alone in the car (a rare instance) on my way to pick up my son from football practice. In that ten minutes, not only did I realize what was wrong with the scene, I figured out what was wrong with the entire fifty page opening.

There is a big emotional turning point in chapter two . . . and that was stopping me. It’s a pivotal part of the story, but it came too early. In my mind, I thought it HAD to come early in the book, but when I looked at it from the perspective of “Who is my character BEFORE and who is she AFTER” this major turning point, I realized that I was simply continuing the story from book one into book two without grounding my reader in her “ordinary world.” This the scene I was having problems with was tainted because my heroine Lucy Kincaid was viewing the bedroom as a CHANGED character, when it should really be looked at through the eyes of who she was BEFORE the major turning point. And I realized that there was no reason the turning point had to be in chapter two–and, in fact, as I re-worked the first fifty paged, the major turning point works so, so, so much better after the search for the missing girl begins.

So . . . my original chapter one is gone; the key facts are edited into what WAS chapter three, and is now the new chapter one and two. My pivotal turning point chapter two? Well, I haven’t quite got there yet. But it’s coming. Probably chapter six. Or seven. Or ten . . . I’ll know it when I get there.

I would probably have figured out what was wrong with this opening without listening to Maass’s lecture, but when? When I began to panic? His questions to us, as writers, turned in my mind until three days later I had the solution. And believe me, no one is more relieved that me!

Maass said something else that stuck with me, and will be on my mind as I write this book. I’m paraphrasing, but this is what I typed in the workshop:

“What is the reader not seeing that they need to see in the story? What is the question no one is asking? The issue that has no solution? In this world, what is the most dangerous thing? Apart from the antagonist, what is the most dangerous thing? Who are we the most angry at? What pisses you (the character) off? What’s just plain wrong? What’s not right? Where is there unexpected grace? What is beautiful that people do not see, or would not notice ordinarily? What is or who is exceptional? Who is the unrecognized hero? The would would be a poorer, meaner place without whom? What needs saving? Preserved? Appreciated? Loved? There’s something beautiful in your world; what is it?”

I can answer all those questions (and more), but I hadn’t thought about them as separate issues. Lucy Kincaid is a complex, driven heroine with a tragic past. But the one truly beautiful thing in her world is the unconditional love and support from her family. Family means everything to her, even when they are having problems. And I had a hint of a major problem that is going to test Lucy closest to home. It was a throwaway line, but as I was restructuring the opening I realized that it is truly her greatest fear. It was hinted at in LOVE ME TO DEATH, but it’s going to come out big time in KISS ME, KILL ME. It has to. It’s been an underlying current in not only the Kincaid books, but in all my books. And it’s going to be a very difficult emotion to explore.

It’s funny that last year, it was Maass’ workshop on character that gave me the lightbulb moment that solved my problems with Fiona, my villain in the Seven Deadly Sins series. Helped me so much that I ended up buying his book FIRE IN FICTION.

I learn something new that I can apply to my writing all the time. I don’t think a writer ever stops learning, growing, improving. I have a long way to go, but the journey is half the fun.

What’s something you’ve learned in a writing class or workshop, or if you’re not a writer something you learned in school that gave you a lightbulb moment?

Can you believe in less than five months LOVE ME TO DEATH, the first Lucy Kincaid book, will be on sale? So each of my blog days, I’m giving away books. Comment for a chance to win ANY book in my backlist. And today I’m featured as the “Spotlight Author” for writer Dyanne Davis. She interviewed me about agents, so if you’re on an agent hunt, or simply want to know more about what agents do for authors, you might want to check it out!