writerly habits

voices in my head

When I was writing Homestead, there was always a significant pause between chapters. The reason for this pause was that I had to figure out which of the voices in my head would get to speak up first. Each chapter is written from another woman’s perspective, and each of those women were very adamant about the role they would play.

The one exception was Bengat’s Olga. It took a very long time to realize that the only way for her part of the story to be told was in the form of a letter. She didn’t want to speak to me, she wanted to talk to her husband. So she did.

I have a similar situation in Pajama Jones. Julia Darrow is a woman with a story that needs to be told, and she’s really particular about the who and how and when. She won’t tell it all at once, and she’ll only tell it to one particular character. The problem is that often I misstep in the manner of telling it.

You realize there are so many ways for characters to share information. They can talk to each other in direct dialog; their dialog can be indirect (which is sometimes far more powerful); they can remember something in detail in a vivid you-are-there present tense flashback (something that works for my characters quite often). Or some combination of all these. Or the author can take over and play omniscient being. This is something I very rarely do.

When Julia is ready to tell part of her story, for me it’s like walking on eggshells. I start the scene and if she isn’t comfortable with the way it’s going, she balks. Just shuts down. Closes herself in her room. This is a traumatic story she’s telling and I feel sometimes like I’m coaxing it out of her, or maybe more like I’m directing somebody who is both author and actor. I say, okay, you want to tell this in your own words and she says, NO. Not directly.

So I write and rewrite and rewrite it again, and finally she settles down and allows the story to move ahead.

I know that other writers experience this in a similar way. Not all writers, but at least some. It’s very disconcerting to be negotiating such delicate matters with somebody who lives in your own head. Because they never go away, not completely. They’ll pop out at the most inconvenient moment to reveal an awkward detail that can’t be ignored, or to simply shut things down if they are unhappy. They care not a fig for practical matters. Deadline is not in the character’s vocabulary. But it’s in mine. I’ve got a month to finish this novel. Will I make it?

Doesn’t feel like it, just at this moment. Or so Julia informs me.

And that’s today’s post from the land of split personalities.

shy characters

Here’s something odd. Usually male characters are more difficult to get in touch with, and I have no problem connecting to female characters. Curiosity and Elizabeth and Angeline all babble to me when I’m working on their stories. Nathaniel will talk to me now, but it took a long time for the relationship to mature.

Pajama Jones ((retitled The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square)) is the exception to the rule. John Dodge is very talkative, very willing to have me hitch a ride in his head. Julia Darrow? Not so much. Just yesterday she started to open up. Now, Julia has some issues, but I didn’t think she’d be so tentative with me.

Fiction: something new around every corner.

really deep water, and pencils

Sometimes a scene is so important that I find myself afraid to jump in. I’ve been dealing with a scene like that for two days, dipping my toe in the water and drawing back in panic. Just how deep is this water, and what if it’s too deep?

A short side trip to make clear how serious an analogy this really is.

On a hot Chicago summer day when I was nine years old, and hadn’t yet learned to swim, a bully who shall remain nameless (but his initials were Jimmy Malone) pushed me into the deep end of the very crowded public pool at Horner Park at California Avenue and Irving Park Road. I remember trying to reach the side of the pool, and failing. I remember the going down for the third time, and how pretty the sunshine was on the water. Then I remember throwing up on the lifeguard who pulled me out. He was shaking, and he had very bad acne, and that’s all I remember about him. So you see, when I talk about jumping into the deep end, I know whereof I speak.

So this morning I did something drastic. I went out to write at Starbucks (please, no commentary on writers at Starbucks) and accidentally on purpose I left my laptop at home. Thus I was left with a notebook and a pencil, and two hours of time. So I wrote long hand. And now the scene is out, and pretty good, I think, after all my agonizing. Once in a while, I can float with the help of a number two pencil.

one inch frame

Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book I often read through when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the project at hand. As I am just now. Her “one inch frame” is a reminder that I’m supposed to be thinking about the character in front of me, and just her, and what she’s up to right now. Forget the War of 1812, the British Navy, the complicated politics, the fact that I’ve got characters waiting for me up there in Paradise and on l’ile de lamatins, too. Just concentrate on Giselle at her breakfast table looking at the ships in the harbor.

The problem is, Giselle is still a little put out at me for leaving her to her own devices.The last we saw her was about half a million words ago and now she’s being standoffish. However, she tolerates me as she would a portrait painter.

I wish her husband would come along so I could get a look at him, because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that he’s somebody I’ve seen before.