For a writer, each and every novel is an ongoing process from conception of the vague idea until the deadline pries it from our rigidly revising fingers. Along the way new possibilities bloom, surprise characters appear (yes, surprise even to the author), unforeseen forks appear in the story’s road, and sometimes the entire theme of the book becomes defined in a way far from our original thought. For example, the concept for Whistling Past the Graveyard began as a child in jeopardy story, told from multiple points of view. I wasn’t more than two chapters into it when Starla’s character began to evolve and the story changed into a period coming of age, search for maternal love story fueled by the segregated South and Starla’s fiery personality. Her voice was so strong and unique, the possibility of multiple points of view was taken off the table entirely. (Now I do know there are writers out there whose process does not work in this way, they have things planned and solid in their minds from the instant they type Chapter 1. To those disciplined and skilled writers, I applaud you!) For me, it’s a journey with unforeseen pitfalls and newly discovered treasures–and occasionally a road that requires a bridge built from popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue before the journey can continue on.
Very often there are details that came along with our original idea that we love for their insight, we adore for their brilliance and uniqueness. We just cannot give them up. NO MATTER WHAT. Think of a wide-eyed, starving stray puppy you take home, bathe, feed and accept into your heart even though it gnaws your furniture, poops on your carpet and costs thousands of dollars in veterinary expenses–yeah, it’s that kind of attachment. No matter how the story has evolved and the place where that original idea was to go has changed from a round hole to cubic box, we just keep trying to shoehorn, hammer and wedge them in there. Almost always to our own detriment–sadly we know this, but continue on anyway.
Recently one of my writer friends had this issue in a way that totally encapsulates the problem we writers face with our own stubborn creativity. It had to do with the bees.
Her story is filled with great character conflict, mystery, love and betrayal. As all of her books, it’s brilliant and deals with a complicated cast of characters and two intertwining plots. In the beginning, she’d planned on a bee-sting allergy to off one of the characters. It really was a great idea. However as the book evolved during the writing process, the motivations changed, as did a few of the characters. And really, the whole death-by-bee-sting just became absurdly unworkable. And still, each time we talked, she was trying to get that swarm of bees to do the dirty work. Logically she knew it had to change. That to leave the bees in would make the scene far off the mark on so many levels. And yet … the bees.
You see, I use my friend’s work because as a critique partner, it’s so much easier to see the forest and not just the trees … or bees, as it were. I have no attachment to these bees. It’s easy for me to jettison them from the story entirely. When I comes to my own work, I rely on my critique partners to hammer some sense into me when I become obsessive (which is usually four to five times per book).
As for my critique partner? In the end, reason won and the bees were toast. But I think she might still shed a tear or two at night over what could have been.