I just turned in the follow up to The Forgetting Flower to my publisher. Keep your fingers crossed for me. I hope the team greenlights it soon. In the meantime, I’ve thought of several ideas for a new novel but I’ve struggled with which one to focus on next. The ideas are really characters, a main character who might star in my next story, set where I don’t know, in what time, I’m not sure, in what genre, I have only a small clue. All I know for certain is I have these new characters and no story in which to plop them down inside.
Spotlighted People on Display
In my mind, my characters manifest like wax figures in a museum. They stand on a round platform under a spotlight, slowly rotating so I can get a better look at the their faces, their clothes, their accessories. As they move, they’re not real yet, simply statues of potential. They don’t shout, “Pick me!” or flirt or wink. They only stand in silence with a blank stare, waiting to be activated, waiting for me to point at one and say, “You, come with me.” Then they’ll animate, maybe shake their head out of slumber, and step off the platform to join me in the darkness of the story’s creation.
Photographer in Provence
The first figure is a 30-something woman in a thin skirt and flowery blouse and cloggy shoes. Her hair is pinned up because she’s hot. It’s sunny wear she is. She wears sunglasses and a necklace with a special pendant, carries an expensive camera and a backpack full of photography gear. She’s seeking a unique scene in Provence to shoot, a photo that will forward her career, which has been a failure thus far. But what she gets is a different kind of gem. A cognitively delayed teen will change her life.
A Princess in a Plant Fantasy
Second, a young princess stands in a scarlet dress made of leaves. With a green complexion, she stands out among the other people in this magical world. Her eyes are as dark as ebony, her finger nails are uncommonly hard, and her hair, the color of straw, is thick and silky like grass. Her kingdom is in disarray and only she can save it through political and marital maneuvering. That she may have to sacrifice the creatures of her own culture to do it, rips at her soul. But an ancient hidden tree may be the secret to solving her dilemmas.
A Haunted House of Orchids
An eccentric, curly-haired lord waits in a top hat and black suit. With white gloves in one hand and dissecting kit of tweezers, magnifying glass, and scalpel in the other, he stares off in the distance, awaiting a ship to come into harbor. He’s just hired a young governess to care for his three children because he’s about to embark on an exploration of South America. He’s told her she can enjoy his roomy comfortable mansion but must never go into the orchid greenhouse where a dark secret from his past lurks.
The Botany Detective
In the early 2000s, a dashing 30-something detective leans against a post with his linen blazer hooked over a shoulder. He’s handsome and he knows it, appreciates fine wine, cars, and women. But the death of his beloved gardener mum haunts him every day. He uses the plant knowledge she taught him to solve cases and bring justice and closure to victim’s families. He just wishes he could do the same for himself since his mother’s death, which he believes is a murder that’s never been solved.
Botanique Noire in Paris
On a Vespa scooter, Renia and Andre sit. She drives in a tapestry coat, corduroy overalls, and Doc Marten boots. Andre sits behind in his black racer jacket and brown canvas pants, a leather bag slung across his chest, machete in hand. He’s careful to hold on to the bar behind him instead of her waist, though both wish he’d rather not. They’re headed toward a last adventure in Paris that will test their crafty intelligence and strong resolve to protect plants against organized danger.
A Murky Time
While each of these characters excites me, I also feel a terrible angst. I can’t decide who to invite to step off the platform next. Therefore, these riches haunt me. The indecision is agony. There is one character(s) I’m particularly drawn to. I keep stepping around to inspect the person on their platform again and again. But I’m unsure if that choice is the right one. Still, I think about them and their situation often. For now, I’ll leave the wax museum and head to the garden. There I’ll work until I figure it all out.
Does one of these characters interest you more than another? If you have an opinion, let me know in the comments below!
I’ve been thinking a lot about tribes and how important they are in a writer’s life. Writers are often solitary beings so joining a group, any kind of group, can be stressful and intimidating. We writers write because writing is easier than interacting. Not for everyone, I know, but it’s certainly the case for me.
So while I’m a writer who enjoys being alone, I also yearn to connect with people. Not often, probably far less than others, but I do have that yearning. I realized this when I first took up fiction writing as an adult about 12 years ago. I’d left my job as an editor and while I knew other nonfiction writers and editors, I lacked a creative writer tribe. So I applied to an MFA program.
The Goddard College Group
I chose Goddard because it was a program that focused on quality work but didn’t discriminate against writers who wrote plot. My interest was not only in the literary, the strong sentence and profound insight, but in the thrill and ride of suspenseful events. And so, I attended Goddard’s low-residency program for two years. I ended up getting what I’d wanted from that experience. I stretched my mind and skills as a crafts person and I found a community. I mean, a really great community. I met writers who were as serious as I was and we went through the growth trenches together.
It’s not surprising to say I felt untethered after graduating. All of the students scattered back to their respective cities from across the country and I was left with a small core group of Seattleites that eventually dissipated. I still have a couple of local friends but mostly my Goddard tribe is spread far and wide.
What Social Media Offers
Enter the internet. So, when I wasn’t raising my kids and spending time with my family (how did I, a loner, end up with three kids again?), I joined groups on Facebook and made friends on Twitter. I found a core group of online gardener pals who I was able to share my passion for plants with, and I joined writer tribes. I joined a group called Women Writers who were supportive and caring. Later, I joined Sisters in Crime (even though I was unsure I belonged there), and a writing moms group called Writer Moms. I added the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association too.
These groups have given me so much support. I’m able to ask for specific advice and have received useful help and experienced wisdom. I’ve found free information about building an online presence, book marketing, how to publish, how to write, and other tips I didn’t know I needed. I also got integral support in balancing my mom life with my writing life. I’ve found online friends who’ve been generous with their time and knowledge. It’s been a productive and amazing experience. In return, I’ve tried to offer my own support and advice.
Twitter in particular has been fruitful for me. In addition to making friends, I’ve received a few professional opportunities. I also found my author coach. And I made one very important connection.
Stumbling Upon Publishing
I found the Writer Moms group via their usual Monday night Twitter chats. I started participating in these chats and checked in a couple times a week on the Facebook group. I got an incredible amount of support as a mom and a writer here. During these months, I stumbled upon quality articles and excellent feedback. I even learned about a couple of small presses I didn’t know existed. I had been querying for a few years and submitted my manuscript to the two small presses. Within months, I had a book contract. It was unexpected and wonderful. All because I’d joined and participated in this particular online writers tribe.
So today online, when a writer friend threw out the question of whether online social media was a waste of time, I didn’t hesitate to answer. And after reading this, you probably know what my opinion was. I think it is worth joining writer tribes, you never know what might happen, who might notice you, who you might notice, and how you might connect. I don’t think writers should expect to make instant friends and have instant success. The network of fellow creatives I’ve built has taken me years to foster, and even now I’m still, arguably, a nobody! But at least I’m a nobody with a huge supportive tribe, headed toward a brighter horizon in my career.
There are a lot of books that will teach you how to write fiction. And the best ones not only address the craft of storytelling but the issues beneath the story’s surface. A main character’s wound, the overarching theme, internal versus external conflicts. But the key to a really compelling novel is expression emotion in fiction. And that’s the hardest piece to put on the page.
The Trickiness of Putting Emotion on the Page
The reason it’s so difficult is because if you just flat out say what the character is feeling, it doesn’t seem earned. The reader may not respond. If you show it, the reader will respond viscerally. And if you can show it with complexity, the reader will be the character’s ally throughout the story. A while back, I wrote about how Neil Gaiman does this in his novel Neverwhere.
A Deep Book on an Even Deeper Subject
The best book I’ve come across for delving into the art of creating emotion in fiction is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maas, an experienced literary agent, felt he was experiencing too little emotion in too many manuscripts. He discovered the vital missing piece of these manuscripts was not great prose or an engaging world or lots of action. It was simply an inability to make the reader feel. So in his book, he set out to articulate some solutions.
In it, he explores the inner versus outer strategy or really telling versus showing. Showing, no surprise, is more powerful but telling in a clever way can be powerful too. He discusses the emotional world, how to create a world where a character’s deep sense of self is reflected in what they see and do and how they respond. It’s a complex subject but one worth pondering.
He also discusses the importance of examining not only your main character’s outer journey (plot) but their inner journey (emotional change). And he devotes a considerable amount of time on nailing an emotional opening, midpoint, and cathartic change to your character. It’s complicated and intense. I read that section more than once.
Too Into the Weeds to Be Useful?
Later, when he gets into issues of a reader’s journey and an author’s journey, I felt the book delved too far into the weeds for me. It’s already so difficult to write a compelling novel without thinking about what a reader may experience from moment to moment. Or the unconscious signals you may be sending to readers via character choices or world building. Worrying about it all in the end can be overwhelming.
An Effort to Help Writers
But I don’t think Maas wrote the book to confuse and overwhelm writers. He wrote it to help. In fact, the questions he asks at the end of each section are the most useful I’ve ever seen. They prompt exercises that will produce amazing results. I can attest to that. I took Maass’s three-day workshop on this topic and I’ve never dug so deep into my mind about my imaginary world. He truly knows how to prompt creators to think outside of the box, how to rewire brains to bring forth some serious work of the subconscious.
But if you don’t have the money for that workshop, I recommend doing as many of the exercises in this book as you can. What you discover will change you and most certainly change your fiction for the better.