Fledgling writers make the mistake all the time. Even experienced writers sometimes get caught up in the same trap. You work on a book for months, you write a substantial number of pages, and then the wheels start coming off. Something is very wrong.
You tweak the chapter. You finesse the words. You try and build a better mousetrap any number of ways, but it’s still not working. Usually it’s because we are not looking for the problem in the right place. We think the fault is with chapter 10 (or eight, or 14, or wherever), but much of the time the real problem is elsewhere.
When this happens to you, it’s time to sing a song. The answer, my friends, is blowing in Dem Bones. Let’s sing it together, shall we? I want it sung with gospel vigor, with clapping of hands and shaking of body parts. One, two, three:
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
Oh hear the word of the Lord!
The song might not work for American Idol, but it does help with explaining the Great American Novel. In this column it’s my job to be the word of the Lord. The adult body has 206 bones. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to sing through all the connections, but trust me, there are a lot of them. When the human body is a bit out of kilter the problems can manifest themselves in any number of places. Just watch the show House if you don’t believe me.
A book is a series of interconnected parts that is as complicated as the human body. When we hit that stumbling block in a novel we hope that the answer is to take two aspirin and regroup in the morning. Sometimes that works. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But those bones can be tricky. Sometimes you have to do a hard diagnosis of your book.
Maybe your novel isn’t working because the setup is wrong. When I wrote my third novel, THE HOTEL DETECTIVE, I couldn’t understand why the book wasn’t coming to life. I knew the world of hotels only too well, having worked in them for many years. I knew the characters, and I had the stories. As far as I could determine, there was no problem with the plot. Still, I was 150 pages into the book, and it wasn’t right.
Oh, dem bones.
I had to look at those bones. I studied the foundation of the book. If you’re going to build up, you better have a solid foundation. That’s where I got an inkling of what was wrong. I had built the book in the wrong way. Because my first two novels were written in the first person, I thought THE HOTEL DETECTIVE would follow suit. But first person was absolutely wrong for this book. There were too many characters in the hotel to have everything revolving around one individual – hell, the hotel was a character in itself.
Before my revelation, I had spent weeks tinkering with the book. I had been convinced my problem was in and around page 150, which turned out to be about 150 pages from the truth. As soon as I started writing the book in third person the novel took off.
Every author has to be their own doctor. Proctology exams are no fun, but they have to be done. Why isn’t this book working? Maybe your protagonist is wrong. Maybe your character needs a better support system. Maybe your subconscious knows the plot isn’t right and is putting up roadblocks to the book’s completion. Maybe the setting is wrong. Maybe you need to visualize the book as it should be. Anybody with a bad back knows how having the wrong bone out of place wreaks havoc on the body. Books are impacted in much the same way. When something is wrong the entire book is out of kilter, and though we want the solution to be expedient (i.e. on the chapter where the problem surfaces) sometimes we have to be willing to unravel that thread no matter where it takes us.
It’s all about dem bones.
So you better hear the word of the Lord!
September 5, 2009