Friday, May 23, 2008

Novel 101--and an evening with two stars

Last night, I was lucky to get to listen to Ann Hood and Elizabeth Berg speak about books and writing, and then I got to hear them read. I love listening to writers read their own words. Left Bank Books, one of those fabulous indie bookstores that are becoming far too rare, hosted them at an event celebrating book clubs. It doesn't get much better than that.

The best part, though, was when the moderator asked them if, when they start writing, they know what the ending will be. I was on the edge of my seat. This question is one I wrestle with. To know or not to know? I like knowing. It makes me feel in charge. Or at least not completely lost, grasping for a lifeline. But, sometimes I don't know. Can't know. And I'm trying to trust my characters to lead me where they need to go. But Ann Hood's response totally rocked.

Here's what I wrote down--

She spends an inordinate amount of time on her first line. (Yeah, first line.) Because, she said, she knows her protagonist will be in an opposite position at the end.



I love that. It frees me. I don't need to stew and worry that I don't know where my character is going to end up. All I have to do is look at my first line. Or, maybe for me, my first few pages. But it's right there. I know it even when I don't know that I do. How cool is that? My characters are in charge. They'll get me where I need to be. Or better yet, where they need to be.



In All the Numbers, I opened with Ellen frozen in her car, unable to carry her son's clothes into the funeral home. Not a good place. At the end? She's able to stand on that dock and release his ashes into the breeze and the water at the lake where he was killed. Opposite places. In Unexpected Grace? It opens with Kate, alone, sad, hoping, almost a year after his death, that she'll still be able to smell her fiance's scent on their sheets. At the end, she's holding her daughter and sensing the power she has.



So, as I write this next book, I have even more reason to concentrate on my first chapter (which I was already doing). And when I feel, somewhere around word 23,406 or 57,030, that I'm wandering or I've lost my way, I know I can turn back to that opening and find my way.

13 comments:

kristenspina said...

Thanks Judy, it makes sense, but I'm not sure I would have been able to figure that out on my own without a whole lot more writing under my belt.

When I think now, about my first draft, yes, I can how it holds true. And maybe even where some fine-tuning might help the whole thing along.

Always learning...

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Kristen--It does make sense, doesn't it? But, like you, I'd never thought of it in just that way. That clearly. That simply. So, the learning continues for both of us.

Lisa said...

The epiphanies seem to come from the simplest ideas. I'm learning that with epiphanies, timing is everything and if I stay open to listening -- to myself and to others, the right words seem to come when I need them most. Great post.

Janet said...

Man, my protagonist doesn't even get BORN till chapter four...

I keep feeling uneasy because my structure doesn't seem to match what anybody else is doing, but I think it works. I hope I'm not delusional.

But I like the idea you've presented here. It's another way of looking at a circular structure.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Lisa--yes, "stay open to listening"--that's the trick. So glad this was helpful.

Janet--you know, those "rules" are somebody else's structure. if you didn't see Lynne's post over at The Writers' Group yesterday, do check it out. (They're listed in my links--left-hand side).

Daisy said...

Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. As I read about hearing writers read their own words, I was reminded of how odd it sounds when my son "reads" my blog. He is blind and uses screenreader software. It's so strange to hear this monotone "reading" my words!

Lisa Marnell said...

How THIS helped me, you may never know. Thank you! An opposite place at start and finish. Wow - makes sense and makes for a story.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Daisy, ooh, that must be so strange . . . but kind of comforting too.

Lisa--Oh, I'm so thrilled this helped you. I love the balance of it--go crazy!

The Writers' Group said...

Judy, I always know the first sentence and last, but how to find my way between the two...

Amy

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Amy, therein lies the rub, huh?

Gail said...

I always learn something reading your blog, Judy. Thanks!

Elizabeth said...

Very very interesting.
Now I have something to chew on this morning over coffee and food fights.

Patry Francis said...

I've rewritten my new first chapter at least eleven times. Glad to know I'm not just neurotic.