I’m showing up. I’m churning out the words. I’m making the novel happen.
As the first draft comes together, as the idea of a book gives way to the reality of a book, the unexpected always happens. In my case, Thomas, a character (the main one!), the character I expected to love and care about the most … is falling flat.
For the past several days, while Thomas has dutifully gone through the motions, reeled off his lines, and moved from A to B, he hasn’t felt alive. Instead of the vibrant protagonist I imagined him to be, he’s had all the humanity and depth of a mannequin.
I couldn’t figure out why until today, when Keith Liberto asked me to share what the novel was about.
Frankly, I hesitated to answer his question. In my experience, a story’s energy can be channeled once, and only once. You can discharge that energy by either writing your story … or by telling it.
There are two big differences in these approaches. Writing a story produces a book. Telling a story doesn’t.
At the same time, it occurred to me that I could share the story’s “logline” — a two-sentence summary incorporating a glimpse of the main character, that character’s everyday world, and the call to action that launches the adventure.
(For Star Wars, for example, the logline might be: “Luke Skywalker dreams of joining the rebellion, but family obligations and history keep him down on the farm. But when an imprisoned princess’ desperate plea for help falls into his hands, can Luke rise to the occasion, rescue the princess, and save the galaxy?”)
So I sifted through the pre-writing I did when planning this book and came up with a dusty old logline penned before any characters had really come to life:
“Eight friends on an exotic vacation in Thailand discover too late that someone on the trip has a hidden agenda.”
Yuk. That’s weak. Where’s the main character? Where’s the snapshot of the everyday world? Where’s the inciting incident? Where’s the tension? As a logline, this is one big fail.
So, before posting the logline to Google+ for all to see, I revised it:
“Thomas Schilley is working hard to keep his newest relationship together. But when a dream trip prompts a surprise encounter with an old flame, will he risk his relationship for one last chance at passion?”
Main character there? Check. Everyday world there? Check. Is the call to action (what writers call the “inciting incident”) there? Check. As loglines go, it’s not bad.
It’s still boring.
And then, out of nowhere, a flash of insight: Thomas Schilley is boring because he doesn’t have enough skin in the game. His choice isn’t hard enough. The stakes aren’t high enough. His situation — sticking with Person A or going for Person B — doesn’t provoke a dilemma that strikes to the core of his being.
To make Thomas’ situation more compelling, I need to tighten the noose — to raise the stakes, to up the price, to place him in a dilemma that strikes him to his very core.
Marriage, and what it means to be married, has evolved as one of the book’s central themes. Hmmmm.
What if Thomas, in a quirky turn of fate, is one of Mississippi’s first gay men to legally marry his partner? And what if, in the process, his story’s been picked up by the online press? And what if, as a result, he and his partner, Don, have become the unofficial poster children for the fight for gay marriage recognition in the American south?
And what if, behind the scenes, Thomas’ relationship — which, for political and social reasons, needs to appear sound and stable — is crumbling? What if he and Don are in trouble, floundering, but having to keep that a secret for the greater good?
And what if, on the very trip the couple takes as a way to escape the spotlight and give them a chance fall in love again, Thomas comes across Chase — his first love, and “the one who got away?”
Now, the stakes are higher.
Right then, right there, the Thomas in my head shifted from being a character on the page to being a real person in my heart. I know what his few last months have been like. I know what he fears. I know a set of tensions that can infuse every interaction: with his family, with Don, with the people he meets as he travels.
As it turns out, those tensions are the key to fixing every single scene that hasn’t worked so far.
I won’t be rewriting those scenes yet. I don’t want to lose my forward momentum. But I’ve got my notes, and I know how to fix them, and I know how those fixes will change everything I write going forward.
This is one of the magical things about the act of writing: sometimes, when you least expect it, whatever you need most just falls into your lap.
Thank you, Keith Liberto for your question. Thank you, Muses, for your inspiration. Thank you, book, for choosing me as a channel for the story you want to share.
And now — back to the writing.