Faithful readers, I have joyfully announced to you at least twice that I have finished my first novel, The Achievers, but alas, those reports were premature. I celebrated each time despite irritating doubts I chose to dismiss as fiction newbie jitters. I understood, purely I think as a reader, that my characters lacked some emotional depth. The other elements of story seemed to be in place—setting, plot, world building, etc.—but I wasn’t revealing their truths. It wasn’t on purpose. It was because I’ve been circling a truth of my own and really didn’t know what I was doing.
I first “finished” last June. I had sat myself down and written the book in a month, words flowing with ease, editing as I went along. Then boom, I was done. The only character I worried was not as fleshed out as he could be wasn’t, as an adult I reasoned, central to a YA book. Friends and professionals gently nudged me on this emotion issue, and I finally had to concede the point. The problem was that I had no idea how to fix it. I struggled and I avoided and I searched for inspiration, and I eventually landed on a solution that I see now as cheating. I patched in chapters from another character’s point of view, a bold move considering the entire novel was written in the protagonist’s voice. I told myself I had formulated a completely revolutionary way of approaching these appendages to the novel and that it had solved the problem. I asked my loyal band of test readers to approve my draft and declared it finished (again) in January.
But the nagging was worse this time. I told myself and my readers that I couldn’t see it anymore because I was too far inside it. I was certain that it was either (A) genius or (B) an abomination. In retrospect, the sheer disparateness of those extremes was a clue I should have investigated, but I sooo wanted to be done with it. I had reached the point where I hated it, and I wanted to kick it out into the world and start the second book where I could employ what I had learned during the first and write off any deficiencies as rookie mistakes. I did not, however, receive the response I was looking for. Everybody who read the beginning of the new version (who hadn’t read the first), disliked it strongly. Very strongly. That was the opposite reaction to the original version so I couldn’t deny that I had moved resolutely backwards. Ugh.
With some guidance from an editor, a pinpoint of light appeared in the dark void of my utter unknowing of how to fix this. I’ve been reading and thinking and studying, and it has finally gelled for me. The major flaw in my writing equates to the major flaw in my life, and they are both all about character arc.
I have never been altogether clear about what drives me, and it has led me to drift haphazardly toward my fuzzy goals. As a child I wrote short stories, but the Lake Charles school system went to some trouble to seek and destroy my creative impulses. I have Anne Mendelsohn to thank for coaxing them back to the surface, and I’ve been trying to find their rightful place in my work life ever since. Making the decision last year to concentrate on writing was a major step toward clarity, and realizing recently that the problem with my characters reflects my very own problem has crystallized the issue. They and I must be clear on what drives us. Does anybody else hear those angels singing?
I have understood since I was 21 that, in a general way, I am looking for fulfillment in my life through my work. I am not particularly motivated by money or finding love or power or anything else. I have chosen my jobs for the sense of fulfillment they might bring, and my personal path toward that abstract goal has been through public service. I feel fulfilled when I have a sense that I am making the world a better place, even in a very minor or indirect way. That is what has motivated me to get out of bed in the morning and to care deeply about what I am doing. If a job didn’t scratch that itch, I wouldn’t do it for very long.
Each time I’ve left a job it was to add something to my toolbox through education or to hone in on this vague notion of fulfillment a little more specifically though not actually, you know, precisely. I have tried a lot of different means to achieving my nebulous goal, but it’s kind of like saying “I want to buy a house in North America” and making incremental decisions over the years about what color or style it should be rather than choosing a state, a city, a neighborhood, an actual house. I’ve seen the frustration in my family and friends and heard their exasperation as they ask Houston? Austin? Sacramento? New Brunswick? or to set aside the metaphor, legislative? non-profit? legal? regulatory? There was joy (and some fear) when I finally landed on fiction, but now I realize I didn’t take the final step which is: what do I want to accomplish with the fiction that will lead me toward my elusive fulfillment?
You’ll be relieved, I’m sure, to hear that I’ve answered that last question for myself and in so doing have solved, in theory, my character problem. I need to clearly define what drives them (in my mind and apart from the confines of the plot) so that the reader can root for them to either achieve or not achieve it. Their emotional throughways were missing because I only provided an arc as it related to the story I was telling. I hadn’t conclusively identified the thing they had, that we all have, that is the core of our decision making (or lack thereof), the thing that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning, to strive and learn, to fight and win. Duh.
So I venture into this next revision, armed with a new sense of purpose for both me and my characters. Instead of endlessly circling in disarray, we will journey to our destination together, led by the GPS of truth. Was that last bit too much?
Please wish me luck, my friends!
PS: If you are wondering what I finally learned about my own path to fulfillment through writing, the answer may be found in The Achievers, hopefully soon to be available from some reputable publishing house. Now I can truthfully say that it will be there, laid bare for all to see. And no, I don’t expect my novel to change the world, but if one reader asks herself a question that leads to her paying attention to her world, I will consider my job done.
Feel like sharing? What drives you? Do you know?