On November 2, 2011 (the day before my birthday), my agent, Jackie Kaiser, called to tell me that I’d been made a very tempting offer by Penguin to write two YA novels. One was to be about Josephine’s daughter Hortense, and the second was to be of my choosing.
My husband and I were in Mexico at the time, and two nights before I’d told him that I would never again contract to write a book “in advance.” I simply found it too stressful.
So the timing was a bit ironic. After Jackie’s call, I told my husband, “I’ve just been made an offer I can’t refuse.” Jackie had emailed me a photo of the box the offer had arrived in. Inside were the contract details and chocolates. How charming was that?
Even so, I thought about it carefully for two months. It takes me years (and years!) to write a novel, and I have to feel passionate about it. I have to fall in love with it. So I reread books about Hortense and covered our dining room table with plot points on index cards, considering. I needed to see if there was a story there, an enchanting story about Hortense’s teen years.
And there was. And it was one I very much wanted to write. By February 9, 2012, I had made up my mind. I would accept the offer. I would write a Young Adult novel about Hortense …
… although not immediately. I was on draft 6.1 of what I was then calling This Bright Darkness, soon to become The Shadow Queen. Plus, as I noted in that blog post of Feb. 9:
Somehow, I feel that I can do all of this all at once: finish This Bright Darkness, begin another adult novel set in the 17th century, write two YAs and a short novel for GoodReads, as well as launch my own e-book imprint.
(Reality has never been my strong suit.)
The Shadow Queen was published and my e-book imprint launched, but the “other adult novel set in the 17th century” had to be put on the back burner and the short novel for GoodReads was regretfully abandoned. Writing a novel requires full attention.
Soon I was carting research books on Hortense back and forth from Mexico to Canada.
I organized my plot cards, shuffled and re-shuffled them.
I researched like crazy.
I bought a deck of The Game of Hope and began exploring. (Fun!)
On November 2, 2013, a full two years after receiving the offer from Penguin, I began the first draft.
This is draft 1.7 — that is, the 7th draft of the 1st draft.
Over the next four years, I made two research trips to France.
Here I am at the gates to Mortefontaine, the country estate of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.
This is a statue of Hortense at her home of exile in Arenenberg, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Constance, now a delightful museum devoted to her memory.
This is a photo of what remains of Madame Campan’s wonderful school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Over time, I had the requisite stack of nine drafts it takes me to write a book.
During the four years it took to write The Game of Hope, it went from being a novel told in the present tense to (at a fairly late stage) a novel told in the past tense. The title changed many, many times, and settled, finally, and happily, on The Game of Hope. The cover changed many times as well.
The Game of Hope, Hortense’s story, is now a book. For real. I’ve yet to hold it in my hands, but I will soon, in Toronto on May 1, the official Canadian publication day.
The amazement I feel about this long and magical process never grows old.
I’ve been addicted to the theory of the Hero’s Journey as story structure since I read Cambell’s groundbreaking work,The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in high school. It’s at the core of virtually every book I admire on plot: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, to name a few.
Yet, increasingly, I’ve been bothered by the feeling that there’s something missing, something that doesn’t quite fit the structure of a Heroine’s journey.
The Heroine’s Journey
There have been many alternative structures proposed (see here, and here, for example), but they didn’t really grab me.
The proposed structures felt a little forced to me. The strength of Cambell’s work is that it arose out an examination of popular stories. He began with what worked, and then looked for why. I didn’t feel that those proposing a structure for a Heroine’s Journey were evolving theories by examining actual stories.
Birth vs. Battle, a recent blog essay on Writer Unboxed by David Corbett, offers a solution. He begins by positing: “Conflict is not the engine of story.”
Right away, he has my attention. How many times have I wondered why every Hero’s Journey seems to involve a battle (what Corbett points out Ursula Le Guin called the “gladiatorial view of fiction”).
Corbett goes on to demonstrate that it isn’t conflict that creates movement, but desire.
“Conflict is desire meeting resistance.”
The three basic plot lines
Corbett states that there are “typically three plot lines in any meaningful story.” To summarize:
- The desire line… (outer pursuit)
- The yearning line… (inner pursuit)
- The connection line… (the relationships that help or hinder)
He points out that, “The most compelling stories unify these plot lines.”
(I’ve abbreviated greatly. Be sure to read his post in full.)
So far we’re on fairly familiar terrain, but Corbett differs in that he emphasizes the importance of the connection line.
The importance of connection
The traditional Hero, typically, is something of a loner. He acquires helpers and overcomes enemies, but emerges the sole victor. This model doesn’t really work for the Heroine, somehow. At least not for my heroines, much less for the heroines of the novels that truly move me.
Gin up as much conflict as you want, without desire to generate movement, yearning to create meaning, and other people to provide emotional richness and texture, all you have is sound and fury, and we all know how that phrase ends.
I was a Young Adult book editor in my 30s, editing a series of novels aimed at teen reluctant readers. It wasn’t PC — even more so at that time — but I came to the private conclusion that, in general, boys were drawn to stories that made their muscles twitch (conflict), while girls, frankly, liked to cry (connection).
This is a gross generalization, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions, but I do think it speaks to my own basic issue with the traditional conflict-based story structure.
We may be born alone and die alone but we grow through our engagement with the world—specifically, other people.
This is so refreshing. I’ve ordered THE ART OF CHARACTER; Creating Memorable Characters, for Fiction, Film and TV, Corbett’s book on writing. I look forward to learning more from him.
I’ve been flailing, I confess: in Excel plot worksheets, in piles of plot index cards, in Word files summarizing my plot (or trying to), in books on plot, in on-line courses and YouTube videos on plot!
I saw all this as a sign of a project in trouble. I simply couldn’t figure it out! It occurred to me that I was “finished” — but not in a good way.
So last night I was reassured reading A Technique for Producing Ideas
The first [step in producing ideas] is … to gather raw material.
So: all my frenetic searching was not a waste of time? So: my impulse to know everything possible about my subject is not procrastination?
… it you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.
You take one fact [on an index card], turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. … You bring two facts together and see how they fit … like a jig-saw puzzle.
I especially his description of the “searching” stage of the creative process:
… it is almost like listening for the meaning instead of looking for it.
And, he adds:
When creative people are in this stage of the process they get their reputation for absentmindedness.
So very true.
First, little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. These are foreshadowings of the real idea that is to come, and expressing these in words forwards the process. Here again the little 3 × 5 cards are useful.
The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together.
Tell me about it!
Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. … Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.
after a while you will reach the hopeless stage.
Can he read my mind?
Everything is a jumble in your mind, with no clear insight anywhere.
When you reach this point, … then the second stage … is completed, and you are ready for the third one.
So: Stage One is information gathering (check), and Stage Two is hopelessness (check). What could possibly be next?
In this third stage … you drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can. … Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
Binge watch Making a Murderer? Going to the beach? All this is not procrastination, avoidance? So all this is Stage Three?
Indeed it is. So what’s Stage Four?
In the first stage you have gathered your food. In the second you have masticated it well. Now the digestive process is on. Let it alone. … if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.
Which will be?
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
Perhaps not surprisingly, reading this slender little tomb, I began to get a rush of ideas … which I quickly scribbled onto index cards.
This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.
There is, of course, a final step—Stage Five—and that’s taking “your little newborn idea out into the world of reality.” (I.e.: trying to work it into the complex fabric of the manuscript.)
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. … Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
And so, feeling inspired, ideas popping, I look forward to our two weeks at the beach as Stage Four.
Happy New Year!
Sorry, Peeps, I’ve apparently disappeared on you! I was doing my best to post at least once a week, and — voilá — now two weeks have passed.
The plot does indeed thicken: with index cards, the old standard. My extensively detailed Excel plot sheet bombed on me. Excel is complex, and once it stops working, it’s challenging to fix—at least for me. (If I do need a spreadsheet at some point, I think I will use Numbers.)
But for now, returning to index cards is refreshing.
What’s nice about index cards is that you can move them around and clump them up. You can throw them out and add more. You can lay them out, squint at them, and rearrange them. The other thing you can do is stick post-it notes to them. I had piles around: Random Thought Capture I think of them. Sticking them on index cards and putting them in a semblance of order is calming.
What’s eating up my time:
- Pondering plot (puzzling);
- Research (fascinating);
- Taxes (aggravating!);
- Health: getting shots, check-ups, consultations, plus learning how to sleep using a CPAP machine (challenging);
- Fixing things (sigh);
- Finding things (double sigh);
- Gardening (oh, my back!);
- Reading: catching up on many issues of The New Yorker, Renaissance, and The New York Review of Books before we head south (yikes!);
- Preparing for Canadian Thanksgiving (yay!), always a big, boisterous celebration at our house;
- Preparing for a trip west to give a talk at StarFest. (:-) See below!
- Getting ready to fly south for the winter. (What? Already?)
An event coming up …
I’m going to be flying to Edmonton next week to give a talk (with prizes!) at StarFest, the St. Albert Readers Festival in Saint Albert, Alberta, October 16, Friday night at 7:00.
I’ve heard that this is a great festival; I’m very much looking forward to it. Do come!
Sundry Sundae delectable links:
Links for writers …
• À propos to the above: 7 ways to write a plot outline; The Infographic.
• What agents think. :-(
Links for creatives (i.e. everyone) …
• I read—and loved—Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She is so gently hectoring in an altogether inspiring way. Elizabeth Gilbert on the perils of ignoring your creative self. Right on, sister!
Links for Napoleonistas …
• I adore Canadian cartoonist and history-loving nerd Kate Beaton: Napoleon wasn’t so short after all: a cartoonist’s take on history.
Links for historians …
• Opium Eating: The Lincolnshire Fens in the early nineteenth-century.
Links for just about anyone …
• Who isn’t overwhelmed? I find Stephanie Bennett Vogt’s books on clearing clutter — both mental and physical — inspiring. I’m looking forward to her newest book A Year to Clear and enjoyed watching her three videos on clearing: Reducing Overwhelm, Releasing Stuck Energy, and Getting Spacious.
Happy Thanksgiving Canadians!