Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pearls of Writing Wisdom

By Beth Terrell

When I was writing the first book in my Jared McKean series (now called Racing the Devil), I struggled with the first scene, in which he goes home with a woman he's just met in a bar. I had to have that scene, because if doesn't become intimate with the woman, he doesn't get framed for murder, which is the crux of the book, but no matter what I did, he just wouldn't do it. Or he would do it (since I gave him no choice), but he was so obviously uncomfortable with it that the scene was wooden and unbelievable. It reached a point where the rest of the book had been written, and that stubborn opening scene had wrapped both arms around a lamp post and refused to be pulled loose. "Nope," it said. "Not comin'. No how, no way."

That year, I went to Sleuthfest for the first time. (If you've never been, I highly recommend it.) I looked down at my schedule and saw that Daniel Keyes, author of "Flowers for Algernon," was speaking. "Flowers for Algernon" is one of the most perfect stories ever written, and the novel based on it, Charly, is pretty darn good too. I knew I had a lot to learn from a man who could write like that.

Keyes gave a marvelous and entertaining talk that day. I took many pages of notes, and they're full of pearls, but the pearl that saved my novel and changed my life was, "Never make your characters do anything they wouldn't do. And if they have to do it, find a reason that is true to that character."

Of course. (You probably figured this out long before I did, but hey, sometimes I'm slow.) The problem with that stubborn first scene was that Jared is not the kind of man who is in the habit of sleeping with strangers. But he had to. Which meant I had to figure out what would motivate him to do it.

I had already established that he was grieving because the ex-wife he still loved was celebrating her first anniversary to another man, but that wasn't enough. What would push his buttons enough to make him go home with a strange woman and have intimate relations with her? Well, he has a bit of a Galahd complex, so what if she were in trouble? What if she had bruises all over her, and what if she asked him for protection against the person who hurt her? Add that to his previously-established vulnerability, and suddenly, I had an opening scene that worked.

Now whenever a scene gets stubborn, I think of that advice and ask myself if the problem is that I'm trying to make my characters behave in ways that are not authentic. It's saved many a scene for me.

What's the best writing advice you ever got?

4 comments:

Mary said...

Do you always read minds? I've been wrestling with this issue (and my character) and you come along with the right guidance. Thanks so much!
Giggles and Gunsx

Jean Henry Mead said...

I think the best advice I've received was "Don't submit your manuscript too soon. Put away your 'finished' manuscript for a month or two, then take it out and read it as though someone else had written it. Edit and polish again before you send it out."

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Mary. I figure if I've struggled with something, others have too. But I like to think of myself as a mind reader .

Jean, that's good advice too. I have to do that after every draft.

Pat Browning said...

Beth, that's some of the best advice I ever heard. Ought to print it out and tape it to my monitor! Thanks for passing it along.
Pat Browning
follow me on Twitter @patbrowning26