I have been struggling with my current work in progress, the third novella in my Promise House series, for several weeks. I knew roughly where I was going, but as my target 25,000 words bloomed into 30,000, and then bloated into 40,000 with no end in sight, I had the sneaking suspicion something had gone awry. The story felt squishy to me, as if it had lost its edges and its snap.
There were some good scenes in there, cohesive and meaningful, but they weren’t driving to an inevitable conclusion. The scenes circled around a hard ethical dilemma like turkey vultures, but I kept throwing up my hands, having no idea whatsoever what decision my protagonist would eventually make.
Worst of all, the black moment — which I had intended to reflect a lose-lose decision and its resulting consequences — had become more of a win-win-but-feel-guilty-about-it-because-it-was-going-to-turn-out-fine-anyway light gray moment.
Then last weekend, I attended the fantastic Starfish Conference hosted by my local RWA chapter, Houston Bay Area. Our conference speaker was urban fantasy author Jaye Wells, who brought a wealth of craft wonkiness to us.
And boy, was she good!
As she presented, little lights began to dawn in my thick skull. I caught glimpses of insights that flickered like distant fireflies, and as Jaye continued to talk through her POPs and Payoffs session (POP = Promise of the Premise), those tiny sparks finally landed in the dry tinder of my WIP and I got it.
Evelyn would have been perfectly serviceable written as it was thus far. But I discovered that with a few tweaks and a lot of trimming, I could sharpen the edges of the squishy to do things like:
- Create stronger motivation, in two areas, for the protagonist.
- Deepen the conflict between the protagonist and her love interest.
- Transform her dark moment from that awful win-win back into a truly awful lose-lose — just like I like it!
And all of that from filling out just the first page of Jaye’s 4-page worksheet.
So I sat down and outlined how some story elements would have to change in order to make all of this work. When I presented my Before Jaye and After Jaye chart of story elements to my critique partners, they provided tons of great feedback that helped clarify my understanding of what they feel is important and compelling in the story. Dear Him, who is also a writer, differs on some counts, so I’m considering his input as well.
Being a fan of ambiguity, I’ve discovered the trick is going to be maintaining the edges and the protagonist’s doubt at the same time. It turns out Evelyn is a good training ground for me because I’ve plotted Barbara, and I know her story resides even more deeply in these troublesome gray areas.
Now I’m in full-blown revision of the first two acts of my three-act story, because I need those pieces cleaned up in order to write the third act. I usually write pretty tight, but I’ve been able to see where the story could be tightened even more — at the sentence level, in dialogue, and in characterization — so I hope to compress Evelyn into something closer to Caroline and Ruth, which clocked in at 22,000 and 25,000, respectively.
Given that I have only 34 days left to whip Evelyn into shape for publication (actually only 20 if I want my beta reader’s feedback), I’m pedal to the metal at the moment.
But even if I miss my goal and get dunked again, this time it will be for all the right reasons.
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.