What to keep and what to toss?
Of all the inner battles a writer has to wage, this one gives me the most grief. Early in my career, I felt obligated to toss everything into my opening chapter, including the kitchen sink. Of course, my first editor knew better and counseled me to go for brevity. Actually, a lot of brevity. Taught me the value of the truth that less is more.
Perhaps the main reason I told too much was fear of the dreaded hook. We all know it is vital to hook our readers from the very first sentence, but, gosh how are they going to be hooked if they don’t know the entire history of the main character? Stuff like that. Sorry. That was my feeble attempt at humor. Actually there are all manner of hooks, and the experienced writer loads them into her/his bag of tricks. Hooks are not my subject of choice today but would make a good subject for a future post. Now to get down to it.
Along the way, I had a chance for a few weeks of mentoring by a NYT best-selling author, and she taught me a lot. Interestingly enough, her advice was for me to gather all sorts of peripheral data to flesh out my protagonist before I wrote word one. At her insistence, I went shopping and picked out the kind of pen I’d find on her desk, the style notebook she kept handy, items in her home that she would kill to keep, etc.
I thought at first my mentor was daft. Why did I need to pick the china in her buffet, the clothes in her closet, the time of day she was most vulnerable to a case of the blues. On and on. By the time I’d complied with her instructions, the course was nearly over, and I felt cheated.
But, and this is a dandy, I sifted through all that stuff and, you know what? I suddenly saw my character as human, a person with strengths and weaknesses, passions, hungers, foibles, and aversions, to wit; a real living breathing, suffering, imperfect but lovable person I could write about.
I wrote the book. The final story won’t be written on that book in my lifetime, since I have no way of knowing how it will fare in the competitive world of fiction writing. But I wrote the doggone book and I’m proud of it, one of my best ever.
Now, back to my question. How much of all that periphery did I include? Not very much in terms of straightforward narrative, though understanding what kind of blouse she would wear for a certain occasion, or her favorite song, made her come alive in the pages of my book. So, my advice to fellow authors is, compile a book on your main characters. Don’t be shy, and don’t undershoot. This is your chance for that kitchen sink array.
You’ll ultimately, perhaps with the aid of a good editor, hone it down to the essence of what it is to be alive on God’s green earth. And, no doubt, your editor will give you a sharp paring knife to bring it into shape. I’ve included a partial list below, of the items I catalogued in developing Sera Moreland for my mystery novel, TOCCATA.
Happy reading, all.
Partial List for Sera Moreland, heroine of Toccata:
Leather-bound stationery cover
Grandma Nadine’s silver piano shaped music box that plays Pavanne for a Dead Princess
Grandma’s French set of porcelain
Favorite colors for shirts and blouses, and sweaters: aqua, pastel pink, lavender
Business suits: charcoal and medium gray
Likes: all shades of blue
Dislikes: red (other than her Ferrari)
Extravagances: Luxury autos, Aston-Martin DBS and Ferrari, and Bosendorfer piano
Favorite music: French Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel
Lifestyle: Spartan. No house staff.
Sera is comfortable living alone, her only insecurity a repetitive nightmare stemming from an adolescent sexual encounter.