Sunday, February 17, 2008

Blind-sided by my own novel

I've been working on a novel for several years now. I've been assisted greatly in this by Joni Cole and her workshops, and by a writing group which sprung out of them called the 100 Page Club.

**** Warning!! Spoilers ahead! ****

If you think you may want to read the novel, if and when it eventually appears in print, and you want all the surprises in it to remain surprises, then you might want to stop right here.

On the other hand, if you're a reckless adventurer like me, read on...

Brief synopsis

The novel is an adventure story, a psychological mystery, and a romance: it's about two women, Kate and Rachel, who meet as teenagers, become friends, and develop an interest in racing.

They begin racing karts at a local dirt track, where Rachel demonstrates a precocious talent for driving and Kate begins to develop budding race engineering skills. But there's a sinister undercurrent, and at the end of the summer, one of the girls kills her father.

The story resumes when, as adults and professional race drivers, they step up to the top level of open-wheel racing. A catastrophic crash alters the course of their lives, and ultimately the reasons behind the murder are revealed.

So how did I get blind-sided?

Last fall while I was working on the novel, my friend Steve Cahill challenged me to write "the difficult parts" of the story. I'd already written a lot of racing scenes - which had gotten very good responses from other workshop participants - and I kept writing more and more of them.

But Steve said he thought that I kept writing the racing stuff because I was avoiding the more challenging emotional stuff - the back story, the reasons for the murder, etc.

I thought he was completely full of it. I'd have no trouble writing that stuff, right? It was just more dialog, lots of talking and maybe a little crying here and there. A dash of hand-wringing now and then. No sweat!

So I did it. And boy, was I wrong.

Well, at least partly. It wasn't really very hard to write the stuff; in fact, it was kind of fun, much like writing the other parts of the story had been.

It was what happened afterwards that was tough to deal with. I started having all kinds of emotional reactions to what I'd written. Feeling guilty, creepy, skeezy. How could I dream up such filthy, revolting stuff?

All the times I'd felt abused and betrayed started coming up, over and over, making it difficult to sleep.

I'd finally get to sleep and when I'd wake up, all the things I've done that I regret would come marching through my brain. Agonizing.

Crawling out of the muck

I was lucky. Feedback from other writers and Joni's writing workshops helped me work through it.

First I discovered I was not alone in having this kind of experience. A writer friend told me that he'd given up writing fiction because he found that it revealed things about himself that he didn't want other people to know. He said he said he'd decided to stick to non-fiction as a result.

He also said that he knew several other writers who had had similar experiences. Some had worked through it and kept writing fiction; others had not, and had gone back to writing non-fiction.

Shortly after that, in one of Joni's workshops I got some positive reviews for some of what I'd written, and realized that the writing had accomplished my original objectives: I'd created a very strong and understandable motive for the murder, one which put the murderer - Rachel, my central character - in a positive light, despite the fact that she'd offed her daddy in cold blood, while looking him straight in the eye.

Also, several people in the workshop suggested some books and movies which dealt with similar topics and themes. I watched a couple movies and read some books and realized that, in the grand scheme of things, my story wasn't so horrible after all.

Well, okay; it was horrible. Really horrible. Nightmarish, even.

But there were other stories out there that were just as horrible, and nobody seemed to think their authors/screenwriters/directors were satanic.

Almost nobody, anyway.

Suddenly, she chuckled, and then...*

In one of her workshops, Joni pointed out that it's always good to write outside the novel, so eventually I broke down and did something I'd been resisting: I wrote about the murder and the events leading up to it from the villain's point of view.

I'd been resisting this, because I didn't want to give voice to this creepy scoundrel. But the problem is that I seem to inhabit all of my major characters; when I'm writing about Kate, I become Kate. When I'm writing about Rachel, I become Rachel.

And in order to understand how he could have gotten to the point where he did what he did, I had to inhabit the villain, at least for a little while. I'd actually done this already; I just didn't want to give this character a voice.

When I finally did so, it turned out to be cathartic. Not only was this character's story great fun to write, but getting it out of me completely purged me of all the negative emotions I'd been having.

In the process, it revealed this character's, ah, character: his abuse at the hands of his
own father, his intelligence, his religious devotion, his good intentions, his love for his late wife - and his rage, his self-deception, his rationalizing, his denial, his lies, all of which allowed him to brutally abuse his own daughter.


In the end it was a great experience.

But it sure was harrowing for a while!

* "Suddenly, she chuckled, and then..." is an inside joke, known only to the participants of Joni's workshops. If you want to be able to get the joke, you'll have to do one of her workshops, at The Writer's Center in White River Junction, VT.

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