Today while hunkered down at the library, working over an essay on character definition through omission in a book by Richard Peck, it finally hit me:
I need to start over on my middle grade novel.
Actually, a part of me has known this for a good part of the week. Each day that I sat down and tried to write up journal entries for my main characters it was harder and harder to deny that I was lost. It should have been easy for me to slip into the skin of my characters and free write a couple pages of what they think and how they feel. But each day was a slog; no, worse, it was torture by my own hand.
How did this happen? I’ve known these characters for so long, known what I wanted from them and what I wanted them to do. I’ve plotted their story several times, tweaking bits along the way, I’ve known what they wanted and what they get (not exactly the same things), I’ve always felt this should have been a fairly straightforward thing to write.
What I thought I wanted was to see two boys become friends. I wanted two characters with nothing initially in common to discover another side of themselves that meshed with the other. I wanted boy being boys. Oh, and maybe some conflict with a couple of girls to keep things interesting.
A writer, a good writer, plotting my adventure through this manuscript of mine, would have known this would be my first setback. This is where Main Character Me suddenly recognizes the clues that have been there all along. A week of near panic as I tried to write and couldn’t led to the realization that unless I figure out what went wrong I’ll never snap out of it.
But it’s been there all along, from the beginning. The boys are defining their friendship, but against what? One of them has friends who don’t even miss him when he moves, and the other boy has moved around so much he’s never known how to make friends. Meanwhile, and this has been in my notes from conception, they are surrounded by girls who not only have the friendship thing down but one of them is pushing an olive branch (via an anonymous note) that asks if it’s possible for boys and girls to be friends with each other.
Like an idiot, I had to be as blind as my main characters before I could seen what had always been there in the text. The story looks like it’s about boys becoming friends, but it’s heart and soul is about what it means to have and define friends, and how those choices get complicated. The girls aren’t there to “keep things interesting,” they’re what drives conflict.
How did I not see that all these years I’ve been thinking this story through?
My advisor has had me looking at beginnings and character building in my essays. This past packet he’s seen that my story has broken free of the reigns and that the timing is off. He’s probably seen the problem all along and was just waiting for me to finally see it. He knew I would too because he asked me to do a couple of exercises to help me see the characters clearer, define the story, and then go back and rewrite from the beginning.
Because I need to. Because it needs it. Because I now know what the story is about and can actually write to it.
It was a good 50+ page run initially, but it ran wild, overflowing it’s narrative banks like the Nile, but leaving in its wake fertile soil in which to plant and harvest anew. There’s still a lot of good material in those pages, most of it easily recyclable. Time will tell if I can capture it properly the second time. At the very least I should be closer.
But, man, what a bummer.