Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Writing in the Negative Space

No, I don't mean that I'm making my Hemingway-esque descent into drunken, depressed mad genius (though I wouldn't mind a good dose of mad-genius every now and then). I've just been thinking about one of my works in progress with which my creative wheels have gotten buried in about two feet of gooey, frustrating, infuriating mud.

This novel is a complete rewrite of one a did a few years ago. I mostly just scooped the cream off the top--the main character and all her delicious flaws, a couple of supporting characters, and two male leads. From there, I took the characteristics that spoke to me about each of those "cast members" and I used every drop of my psychology degrees to invent backstories that explained every quirk and facet of them all. Then I did that about twenty-five more times until I finally ended up with a social history for this little handful of people that rivals War and Peace.

Of course none of that will be in the book, but whatever. At least I know it, and that helps me to have the characters fully realized and in beautiful technicolor on the page, right?

The problem that I have now is that they're so technicolor in my mind, I have no idea what's on that page. Once you've gone that deep with your characters, you can't pull yourself out and see what the reader sees anymore. No mother looks at her child the way a stranger does, and that goes for fictional children, too.

This brings me to my problem. My main character has just experienced a fairly traumatic emotional crisis which will have lasting implications on her life-path, but also harkens back to some of that ginormous backstory I mentioned. I'm pleased with the lead up to this event and the direct aftermath, but now I'm kind of stuck. This character's history has set her up to be the type who puts on a facade while she's full of raging waters inside. I think I got that across in the "first punch" phase of her crisis, but now I'm up to the point where there are a little details that have to be ironed out and the next steps are setting in. I keep getting caught up in these little details even though I know the reader would be rolling their eyes and telling me to just get on with it.

Generally, that's a bad thing.

I want to get on with it. I do. I really, really, really with sugar on top do. My problem is that the way that she handles those little things show a lot about her character in subtle ways...way, way too subtle ways.

I love this character. We've been hanging out a lot for several years and she's like my little imaginary bestie. We like the same kind of ice cream and we're both left handed. She would get along with my evil cat. Of course it is hard to write about a character that you like going through terrible pain, but I am absolutely determined to keep her as miserable as possible in order to highlight her most redemptive quality--her quiet inner strength and resilience.

This brings me to the difference between the positive and negative space. I don't mean the "Yay, go team!" space and the "Everything sucks and then you die," space. I mean the difference between this:

 and this:

Positive strength in a character is really easy to portray. It's in style. It's cool. You have a character who goes out there and kicks some serious butt. She's taking names and wearing great boots. You really wish you knew who did her hair because it never looks bad, even when she's just taken out an entire room of bad guys while the hot male lead waits outside in the Porche.

Then you have my character. She's wearing scuffed up shoes that are definitely knockoffs from Payless. She's sarcastic and shy and mostly just wants to find a cave to crawl into so the sky will stop dropping chunks on her head. Then, the more you delve into her life and she starts to come out of her shell, you realize that she has been holding the whole world on her shoulders. She's holding it up pretty darn well, considering. After all, you didn't even notice at first. She's just not moving around a whole lot while she's doing it.

It sounds great in concept, but it sure is hard to write through, especially when I already know these things and I'm trying to write for people who do not know them and will never know them unless I get my words in tune. Her strength lies in the negative space, the places around her that reveal her shape while she's holding still. It's one thing to do that with a camera, but it's a heck of a lot harder to do it with the alphabet.

I'm going to keep pecking away at it and hopefully crest the summit long enough to get to another scene that sends me off at a run. That's where I struggle--I just can't stop worrying the lumpy spots long enough to get the rest of the manuscript out front.

If anyone is listening out there, I'd love to hear opinions or suggestions about how to fill in the foreground while drawing the attention to the background without your readers using your book to prop up an uneven table-leg.

I'm definitely wallowing in my warm welcome to the world of literary fiction. Plot? What's that?


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