Sometimes Progress is Little Steps

When I first started working on this WIP (which really needs a working title!), I read Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (my review here) and spent a chunk of time with his workbook of the same name. In the course of doing some of the workbook exercises, I wrote a few actual scenes–trying to get closer to my hero’s needs, personality, and her narrative voice.

Honestly, I like those scenes. It’s easier, I think, to write a scene that isn’t yet connected to what has come before or what will come after. It’s easier to get in touch with the prose and the voice, because you’re worrying less–at that point–about how it all fits together. It’s a more free kind of word play, I think, which is always fun. 

Of course, as I get further into the book (I hit page 150 today–whee!), I’m coming up to some of those scenes, finding a place to fit them into the story as I’m learning it now. And, equally of course, I was right–so much of the stuff I wrote back them doesn’t mesh, doesn’t tie up with where Caro is, who she’s become. So what I end up doing is pasting the old scene into the new, keeping some or all of the setting and pieces of the action, then doing a quick “rewrite” of the dialogue and narration. Yes, quick, because it’s still the first draft, and, hoo-boy, is this baby going to change next time around.

But…Oh, come on, you knew there was going to be a but. Here’s what’s also happening. I’m further along with Caro. I still don’t know whether the things she’s doing and thinking should be showing up for the first time this late in the book (Oh, wait, I do know. They shouldn’t!), but at least she’s doing and thinking them. Yes, she’s probably acting with too much melodrama, thinking too much about this stuff instead of saying it out loud in conversation and argument, but I can take the melo away from the drama later, and I can move things into dialogue in another draft.

The thing is, she’s further along than she was before, than when I was just starting to know her through Maass’ workbook exercises, through those early disconnected scenes. Yes, sometimes it feels like I’m playing Mother May I, and the only steps I’m being allowed to take are the baby ones, but I’m inching forward.

It’s progress.

What makes you feel like you’re getting closer to the heart of your story, to the truth of your characters, even when the end goal seems far away? How do you know you’re on a track, any track, even if you’re not sure it’s the “right” one?

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8 thoughts on “Sometimes Progress is Little Steps

  1. What a great post! I had a great experience while I was camping last week. We left the computers at home, but I brought along some notebooks and did a lot of freehand journaling about my story. Being physically away from it helped me figure out what was most important for the MC in each chapter. I couldn’t open the file and get caught up in the prose. I just had to go from what I knew of the story. I was amazed to discover new things about my characters and find places where I could do so much more with the story. It was huge progress.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Sherrie. Yay for you–there is something about staying out of the file, like you say, that is magic. We do get too caught up in the words we’ve written, I think, to see deeply.

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  2. Becky,
    You asked really good questions and since I’m in the middle of a first draft of my first WIP, I’m not sure that I have the best answers. But free write, or thinking about the story when I’m not actually writing is probably the best way. Also, I am writing in first person which has helped me a great deal to connect with my character. When I have read Joyce’s WIP I have wondered where her character ends and where she begins. SOmetimes I have that experience within myself! Also, last year at Chautauqua Harold Underdown asked me, “What does your character want?” That question led to freewrites that I hope will inform the rest of my story.

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    • beckylevine says:

      That character-want thing is SO huge. And hard to get to while actually writing scenes, sometimes. I bet the freewriting gets you there.:)

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    • beckylevine says:

      Amy, I think sometimes I have to get my characters to be a little, um…intense to figure out WHAT they’re feeling! 🙂

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  3. Good questions, Becky! I think about my writing as a puzzle. I’m making progress when I can unlock a piece to the puzzle and I know the plot, character, etc. makes sense. I get stuck when there’s a missing piece and even though I know I should just go ahead and keep writing, I need to unravel it first.

    Yay for progress on Caro!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I like that imagery of the puzzle–more one of those 3-d puzzles that do fall into place when you find the right place to push or twist. I always struggle with making a jigsaw puzzle idea work, because I often don’t feel like the pieces even show me PART of the picture. 🙂

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