A Novel Structure

Published by Wendy under Uncategorized

If you’ve read my novels, Four Wives and Social Lives, you know that I like to write within a specific structure. Multiple characters, alternating chapters, different voices. This enables me to keep the plot moving, connect readers with each of the characters, and intertwine several plot lines within one master story. It’s also a lot of fun! For one chapter, I can be scandalous and dramatic. In the next, I can be brainy and complicated. I can be a woman on the brink of an affair, a man lost within his own fabulous life, or a teenager caught in a dangerous cycle of self-destruction.

As I write this new novel, I am keeping much of this structure, but making one significant change. In this novel, I have a dominant character, Melanie Thomas, and I am writing her in first person. 

Writing in first person is actually quite liberating for an author. By providing a direct line of communication between the reader and character, first person narrative can be a powerful tool. Alternating between first and third person is also very useful, because it adds additional avenues for suspense. For example, an action sequence can occur in one chapter with secondary characters. In the next chapter, when the reader returns to the main character, she is desperate for this character to know what just happened because it (a) solves her problem, (b) saves her life, (c) threatens her life, etc. Wanting her to uncover the action that the reader already knows about provides a huge incentive to turn the page! Please, for the love of God, let her find out!

But alternating between first person with the readers’ favorite character and third person with the supporting characters can be tricky. It requires the reader to shift gears, to leave the head of the main character and process the new information that is being delivered through the others. The change in voice can also be tricky because it completely alters the tone of the book.

In this novel, Melanie (Mel) is a little flip at times, sarcastic, sharp-witted and discerning of those around her. Though she is a victims’ rights advocate with a lot of serious issues on her mind, she has a quirky suburban family. Sandwiched between two sisters, young, hip Belle and minivan-driving conservative Claire, she finds humor in the family interactions. Their mother, Judy, is also a colorful character. Having rediscovered feminism later in her life, she is outspoken and determined to influence her daughters’ decisions.

The chapters with Mel’s family are a joy to write because that’s what I’ve done for most of my writing career – pulled apart the relationships between women. The challenge for me is to not go so far into what could be considered traditional women’s fiction that I derail the reader from the main plot, which is the drama of Mel’s newest case involving the assault of a teenage girl.

I am 50 pages in now, and at a crucial juncture. Mel and George, who have been working the same story from two different angles (George is a reporter), finally cross paths. Here is my dilemma as I sit down (hopefully today if my kids stay put at their camps) to write the next chapter. Is Mel’s first encounter with her true love after 13 years written in first person, or third? Is it more effective to focus on Mel’s point of view, or is it better to have both of their reactions conveyed equally? If I write in Mel’s voice, George’s feelings will have to be disclosed through his actions and then in a subsequent chapter when we can get into his head through third person narrative. If I don’t write in Mel’s voice, or first person, then we will see Mel in a different light – through the eyes of the narrator (me).

I am going to face this same dilemma in every chapter where Mel meets new characters who have been in third person chapters. I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing, but I will keep you posted!

More later…

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My New Love

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Every time I write a new novel, there is a new love. And shaping that love in a way that will be both provocative and familiar is the real challenge. Much of the love that surrounds us is like a favorite pair of jeans. Sometimes they feel amazing. Sometimes they make us feel sexy. Sometimes they feel too tight, or rough, or we’re just not in the mood for them. But we always know, if we take good care of them, that they will feel good again, maybe even tomorrow, and that there will be days when we pull them on and they feel brand new. And utterly amazing.

My characters are always wanting that kind of love, and my readers (hopefully) able to see that there is hope for this. No one wants to invest the heart in a love story that is doomed to crash and burn.

Still, when I begin to structure the love story in a novel, I think about the great ones. First and foremost – Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Proud, independent Lizzy finally meets her match in Mr. Darcy. But Darcy is a love cynic, and deeply afraid to give his heart. Whether they like it or not, it is love at first conversation. But they spend an entire novel mucking things up until, finally, neither one can stand being apart for one more second. Nothing is more gratifying than watching these two overcome the obstacles they place in their own path and find bliss.

One of my favorite modern love stories is Carrie and Big from Sex and the City. Year after year, we watched the chemistry between them, the bad timing, the posturing and miscommunication. Again, two strong, independent people who have met their match and it scares them so much they engage in horrific behavior to sabotage their chances at happiness. Of course, it all ends well.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the love story between Liz and David in Eat Pray Love. For those of you who haven’t read the novel but plan to see the film, STOP READING now because I’m about to spoil it for you. Liz goes on her journey to find herself after she falls into a love inspired depression. Her soul mate, David, can’t meet her needs, which are substantial when it comes to David. He doles out affection sparingly, leaving Liz aching for more and empty inside. When she is in the “pray” stage of her journey, a wise Texan at the ashram tells her something very poignant – that while David may be her soul mate, they may not be able to live life together. I thought this was one of the best revelations in the book. And one of the most disheartening. Soul mates who can’t be together for no tangible reason? Ugh.

This is a suspense novel, so the love story is not the main course, but perhaps the table upon which everything will be served. The connection between Melanie (Mel) and George (can’t stop naming characters George – yes, many of you know why) has to be believable and engaging as they face my perilous plot. Mel is strong and courageous. She’s jaded but hopeful. Plagued by her dark past, but always peeking above into the light. She and George met years ago. George is brilliant and sensitive. Loyal and strong. He has no issues with his past but is drawn to Mel for the depth he sees in her eyes and the connection that exists between them from the first moment.

Of course, Mel is young then and when his love comes so fast and feels so real, she can’t do what she usually does with men – hide. Whatever walls she puts up between them, George just pulls them down. He understands her past and what it’s done to her. Not only is he willing to help her through it all, he refuses to let her ruin what’s between them. But in the end, Mel isn’t ready and she disappears to a place where he can’t follow.

It is years later and Mel and George are thrown together when a teenage girl is assaulted in a small Connecticut suburb. George is not as open anymore. He’s still angry and hurt and seeing Mel again is not easy. For Mel, George is kryptonite – the one person who sees through her, knows about her past, and could make her feel love again.

That’s the plan. Send me your favorite love stories and let me know what you think about Mel and George. This is a work in progress so join in!

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Conversations with Christopher

Published by Wendy under Uncategorized

So my plan to get going on the new novel failed. It all started out fine. I packed the canvas bags, drove the kids to camp, went to yoga and headed home to start work. Then the phone rang. 

It was my oldest son calling from camp. He was sick. Coughing, sore throat. I passed the exit for my house and stayed on the highway. I called the doctor and made an appointment. Home at noon. Doctor at 1pm. Home by 2pm. He’s not that sick, it turns out, just very good at being twelve. Then it was time to pick up the other kids. Mom beats writer every time. The day was gone.

Fast forward and it’s Saturday afternoon. Kids home all day. Nothing to do. Granted we have a pool and they have each other. Still, there’s nothing to do. Except watch TV. So I pile them in the car and drive to Chinatown for soup dumplings at Joe’s, some plastic Naruto figurines and a gigantic folding fan thing. Home again.

I give in to the pleas for Han (computer game) and go to my hammock with the paper. Soon after, my youngest, Christopher joins me.

Christopher is 7 and he can draw cartoons like a professional. His passion is relentless. He sketches day and night and studies with a professional artist who teaches him how to make a character look “accessible,” or reflective, or mischievous. Not unlike life, one stroke can change the mood entirely.

Christopher and I often talk about writing books together. He will do the illustrations and I will write the words. The content of the story is always collaborative. We decide today that we will work on our story about the devil. We like the devil because he can have complex expressions and moods and because our devil walks the earth and must interact with humans. And our devil will ultimately have a conflict that pits good against evil and makes the reader think about humanity. What could be better?

The hammock is swinging back and forth, the night air so perfect we can’t feel it one way or another against our skin. Christopher shows me the book cover for our book, The Devil Man – a green devil with white horns and black pants. He is the most clever creature with intelligent eyes and a knowing smile. His stance is playful. 

“What’s next?” I ask him. “Should it be the part when he takes human form?”

“No, no, no!” my son says. “You see, in books, you can’t just give away the whole story. People need to find out the devil takes human form but first we have to take them to the graveyard where he picks out the body. Everything has to be in order and we have to make them have that thing … what’s that thing?”

I am speechless but I find the word he’s looking for. “Suspense?”

“Yeah! Suspense. So I’ll go draw the graveyard scene.”

He runs back inside and I suddenly feel better about the days when mom beats writer in the war over time.

Monday will be here shortly.

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