Saturday, August 7, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed, Eat Ice Cream and Try Again...

Hello All,
I hope life is treating you well. I would like nothing more than to tell you things are going splendidly here in my neck of the woods, but that would be a stretch. I recently submitted the first chapter of my work-in-progress to an online critique room for review. Unfortunately, the comments I received were quite disappointing. The majority of reviewers thought my characters were one dimensional and my approach was clichéd. I guess beginning a novel with a murder in a hospital room has been done to death.

I tucked my tail and pouted for a few days, seeking solace in the joy of cookie dough ice cream. Ten thousand calories later, I had a revelation. Re-writing is part of the process. I put on my big girl pants and decided it was time to fix the problems in my manuscript.

Before sitting down to write, I thought it would be prudent to conduct some research on the elements of an interesting character. One example that resonated with me was Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs. His dichotomous personality is exactly what makes him interesting. Lector's redeeming qualities are illustrated by the mercy he shows Clarisse. He is also principled and lives by a set moral code, however warped it may be. Yet, his cannibalistic, unconscionable behavior keeps the reader at bay, ensuring they don't become too attached. He is a villain people love to hate.

I also researched plot development. I learned readers need to feel engaged and pulled into a story from the very first words. This is especially important for new writers because agents tend to throw a manuscript in the slush pile if it does not hook them in the first paragraph. I found a site that provides somel useful tips for setting up an interesting hook. Hook The Reader With The Very First Sentence - Some examples from the article are provided below:

1) Indicate a change from the routine. In The Da Vinci code: “Renowned Curator Jaques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.” Although it is no surprise that a curator is in a museum, it is intriguing to learn the reason he is staggering.

2) Present an intriguing character: A good example of this is seen in Gone with the Wind: “Scarlett O’hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” The reader instantly wonders what kind of charm could pull two men in.

3) Present an interesting place: “Iron spikes surmount each of the gates into the park, twenty-seven of them in some, Eighteen or eleven in others.” (The Keys to the Street, by Ruth Rendell). The reader is intrigued by the keys and wants to know what they unlock.

4) Present an interesting object: “There were marigolds in her salad, bright spiky orange petals among the radicchio.” Instantly the reader wonders why marigolds are in a salad. (The author of the article).

5) Present an intriguing situation: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. (A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

6) Give your reader something unexpected: “The last camel collapsed at noon.“ (The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follet.)

7) Raise a question in your reader’s mind: “ One afternoon in late spring, Jane Whittaker went to the store for some milk and eggs and forgot who she was.” (See Jane Run, by Joy Fielding).

Once I completed my research, the lights came on. I came up with several ways to not only hook my reader on the first paragraph, but to keep them engaged throughout the novel (I hope).(: I also found a software program called Story Book which helped me organize scenes and chapters in my novel. I now have character lists which allow me to include personality traits, physical descriptions and so much more. I can’t believe I went so long without such a useful writing tool. Now I have a multi-dimensional picture of my plot and the character’s role in it. I would recommend this to any writer. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has suffered through a similar experience with their novels-- If so, how did you overcome the obstacles?