I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is the source of the expression “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” I heard this expression at office meetings, where it was presented as some sort of encouragement to teamwork. The mind wandered, as it does, especially at office meetings, and I speculated on when this expression might be used literally.
I doodled a few paragraphs, and a couple of years later stretched that into a flash fiction story. Over the last year I revised it several times, still in ignorance of the original usage of the expression. Now that I know the expression is from a 1968 story of hippies, drug use and travelling by bus, they way I have used it seems appropriate, if coincidental.
I entered my first 3-day novel contest in 2012. The story I wrote was a thriller, along the lines of North by Northwest, though considerably less epic in scope and execution. To keep it light, I attempted to parody the man-on-the-run formula (in the way that Mean Streets can be seen as a parody of The Godfather.) The story didn’t place, but I planned to revise it (taking a little more than three days) and perhaps self-publish it.
By 2012, I was taking writing seriously, but had not given much thought to tackling a novel (and that showed in the construction of my thriller). However, I had begun reading a lot of romance novels, found I enjoyed them, and a friend encouraged me to consider writing romances. For NaNoWriMo later that year, I wrote a first draft of a romance novel, this time paying some attention to novel plot and character arcs. Like my 3-day thriller, it was rough, and novella length, but a candidate for revision and self-publication.
My 2013 3-day novel was a sequel to the 2012 thriller, and dreadful, in part because I moved apartments during the weekend. Since then, my projects for these contests and others have been romances, and I’ve generated several drafts for romance novels. I’ve also taken classes and workshops on writing romances, joined a romance novel book club, and joined the Romance Writers of America. Though I say so myself, I am getting better at constructing plots and characters. In between shorter writing projects, I’ve worked on the thriller and the romance novel drafts from 2012.
I sent the revised thriller to a trusted editor a few years ago. It came back with many comments and suggestions. There were problems, starting with an unlikable hero. He was supposed to be a bad guy that learns lessons and reforms, but I did not have the authorial skills to make readers care about such a character. Other characters had poor motivations and their actions were forced to fit the plot rather than arising out of character.
I rewrote the story, trying to make my hero nicer, and other characters more complex. I improved the style, removing much of the passive and vague language my editor noted. Earlier this year I sent the novella to several friends for beta reading. There were still problems. The character tweaks were not enough to make the story work.
I was tempted to give up on the work. For several years, most of my fiction reading and writing has been romance. My heart was not in working on a thriller. I couldn’t decide if the story should be cozy or dark, which left readers muddled. Changing the hero enough to make him likeable meant the plot did not work. From a marketing and branding perspective, offering a thriller and a couple of romances would not help the sales of either.
Then an idea struck – in hindsight, an obvious solution. If fixing the characters will not work for the plot, then I need a new plot. So, my thriller is going to become a romantic-suspense novel. I have to rewrite it anyway – might as well do it in a genre I prefer and know well. There are already various romantic and erotic elements – they can be merged and expanded into a romance plot. Most the thriller elements can be kept, but will be in the context of the romance plot.
My hero will be more likeable – we no longer want him to merely survive (he was so unlikable some readers did not want that) – we want him to have a happy ever after. He’ll also have a stronger (and more heroic) motivation, to explain his actions in the suspense plot. A couple of characters will be combined to become a complex, interesting, and sympathetic heroine, and the relationship of another character to the hero will be changed to make her a more credible and motivated opponent. And the darkest, creepiest, scene in the story is coming out.
With this new genre goal, I’m no longer resigned to another rewrite of this story. Instead, I am looking forward to it. And I still have that dark and creepy scene ready for use in another story.
I recently attended a life drawing class. In preparation, I dropped by a local art store, asked a lot of questions, and left with a few pencils, a sketchbook, and a book on how to draw figures. I’m not a visual artist, have never had any interest in being an artist, and have never had any art training. Much of the little I know comes from Bugs Bunny, like this explanation of pointillism:
So what was I doing at a life drawing class? Learning to write.
Writing is hard. I’ve had college classes on the subject, attended workshops, read books on writing, read books, and revised a lot. All of that has helped, but there’s still so much I don’t know. Like how to describe a person sitting with their back to you, in a way that is interesting and original. Exactly where are their arms? What muscles are visible? What curves are obvious? Where are the shadows? I hoped two hours looking at a person in different positions, and trying to capture those details visually, would help me notice those details. It did. It’s going to take more than two hours, but I’m already more confident about describing bodies.
I also learned the folly of attempting to draw an entire person in 15 or 30 minutes, especially when are you trying to remember the proportioning rules from your how-to-draw book. I had more luck drawing when I focused on one limb, or one area, such as the upper back. And it’s one area that a character might observe, such as how the back muscles bunch and stretch depending on the position of the head. For short poses, only a minute long, the best I could do was sketch a sense of person’s position – and again, that’s often all that’s needed for a written description. The time limited poses helped me focus on what was important.
Exploring creativity in different artistic pursuits is a common habit of several writers I know, and other writers. It’s a break, and a chance to exercise other parts of your brain and body. I like taking pictures, trying to capture key aspects of landscapes in the same way I was trying to capture the body at the drawing class. I’m also partial to writing limericks, which are good warm-up exercises for writing. (Blog posts are another exercise.) Since books can take months or years, it’s also fun to tackle a creative project that can be completed in a short period of time.
It’s important for everyone to learn new things. It keeps the brain healthy, and for writers, it gives you more material. Last year I drafted a romance novel where the main character is an artist. When I revise it, I can use what I learned from my little excursion into the art world.
If you are trying to write, try new things, and try being creative in other media and formats. You’ll gather material, meet new people (potential readers are good, no matter how introverted you are), and stretch your creative muscles. With a little sketch stretch, and a warm up blog post, I’m feeling ready for more work on the novel marathon.