I’ve been attending writing workshops and taking writing classes off and on for many years, in an effort to improve my skills as I write a novel. Often, I fear, I sign up for a workshop thinking that it will give me a deadline and thus motivate me to get more writing done; the reality is that the class itself becomes a way I can convince myself that I am doing something to make progress with my writing without actually having to spend the time writing. Even so, I almost always get something useful from the class; something that truly does improve my writing.
One of the most significant points that I have learned came from a week-long workshop I took at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival in 2007. The class was titled “Novel Solutions” – we writers love plays on words, don’t we – taught by Wayne Johnson. I got a lot of feedback on the 18-page excerpt from my novel in progress. Much of it ws positive, which I really needed. But there was plenty of criticism as well. As is always the case, I didn’t feel all of the criticism was valid, but there was one point that kept coming up that finally made me aware of a major flaw in my writing.
I needed to learn to stay with the scene to the end.
I could set the scene. I wrote vivid detail, employing all the senses. I used strong verbs to bring the action to life. And then, just as things were getting really interesting for my readers, I summed the rest of the action up in a sentence or two of narrative and moved on. Or worse yet, I left it for my readers to figure out what actually happened.
I thought I was being clever. I had convinced myself that it was a deliberate style choice, that it fit with my writing aspiration – to tell the story in as few words as possible, each word conveying maximum meaning. Spare, yet rich. Like Hemingway perhaps. (Okay, I said it was an aspiration.) I wanted to give the reader enough to stimulate her imagination , then let her fill in the blanks. Isn’t that more interesting than being given the entire picture?
What my first readers told me was, no it’s not. When I painted a scene, I brought the reader into it with me. By leaving them there abruptly, I wasn’t being clever. I was being lazy. When I examined the parts of my manuscript where I had done this, I realized that I had stopped writing in the middle of the scene because I wasn’t sure how to get to the end! Like many things in life, the only way out is through. I had to stay there with my characters until the end.
Here’s an example. My character, Miranda, is an Iowa farm girl in the 1930’s. She has gone to town with her father and in the general store dressing room tries on a ready-made dress that she has been admiring for weeks.
The dressing room was lit by a single electric bulb and a small window of etched glass high above her head. There was a mirror, tall and narrow, that produced a slightly waverying reflection. In the unfamiliar light, Miranda stared at herself in this mirror. She was fourteen years old and fully grown in height, but thin, with hips that were still slim and breasts that were small, high and firm, but this dress, this beautiful soft green dress, made her feel like a woman. She twisted her shoulders, first one way, then the other, and back and forth until her whole body was twisting, and the full skirt swirled around, rising and then falling again to graze her calf. Finally she spun completely around, and the skirt rose almost parallel to the floor to make a full circle, brushing all four sides of the small room before falling gently into place.
Miranda had been taking the extra eggs into town every Friday morning before school for six months, and she had saved just barely enough money to buy the dress. She wore it to church the very next day, and she was sure that everyone looked at her differently than they had before.
The reaction I got from the workshop was – “I loved the scene in the dressing room , but why did you stop? I want to see Miranda buy the dress.” My solution was to mention the egg moneybefore she actually gets to the store, and replace that last paragaph with this one:
Miranda carried the dress to the front of the store and placed it gently on the high oak counter. The clerk, whose every grey hair was tucked neatly into her bun, peered over her glasses at Miranda, her gaze moving from Miranda’s curly slightly mussed hair to her obviously homemade white blouse.
“I’d like to buy this dress,” Miranda said.
After that workshop, I re-read my entire manuscript and found multiple instances where I stopped in the middle of the scene, or sometimes just a few moments too early. Learning to stay in the scene has definitely improved my writing.