Monday, May 11, 2009

Marrying Two Things That Don't Go Together--A Book-Writing Exercise

When I was in the deepest struggle with my novel, Qualities of Light, I took a one-day workshop from author Alison McGhee. Alison has won awards for her fiction and my favorite of her novels is called Shadow Baby. I was truly stuck in the shadows of my story, not knowing where to go next. I thought she could help.

Alison gave us a writing exercise that changed the way I look at story-making. She wrote two lists on the blackboard. One list had five people--a six-year old boy, a seventy-five-year old woman, a teenager, etc. The other list had objects--a birdcage, a water glass, a jackknife. We were to pick one item from each list and write a scene using them both.

I picked the six-year-old boy, since one of my main characters fit that age, and the jackknife. I stared at my writing notebook, hoping for magic.

I don't know much about jackknives. I know they are precious to boys, especially if they belong to someone revered. I decided I would have my character steal the jackknife that belonged to his father, a war-era relic very precious to the older man, and the jackknife would be subsequently lost. When I began writing I didn't know all this, but I trust freewriting, automatic writing, stream of consciousness, for developing scenes.

The writing time was much too short. I was literally silenced by the scene that emerged. Sammy, the six-year-old, steals the jackknife on the morning of his birthday. Molly, his older sister, is badgered into taking Sam for a dawn boat ride, even though her father has forbidden use of the ancient motorboat. Sam, leaning over the side to watch ducks, drops the knife in the lake and falls in after it, hitting his head on the boat. That accident became the "triggering event" for my story. And because the trigger happened on the lake, I could then imagine the next twist: Molly falling in love with her water-skiing best friend, even as her brother lies in a coma in the hospital. The story became her story--what she does as her family blames her and copes with their loss, whether she can accept the amazement of love in the midst of her guilt over her brother. All because of a simple writing exercise.

Qualities of Light is now being typeset and the cover designed. It's going to be published by Spinsters Ink/Bella Books in August, the same month as much of the story on Cloud Lake takes place.

I have to write Alison a thank-you note sometime, send her a copy when the novel is printed. I love her writing exercises, and I think you will too.

To try it: make yourself two lists, one of people and one of items. Marry two things that don't go together. Shake them up, see what happens. Set a timer for 20 minutes for this writing session. It's bound to be a productive one.