Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Puzzling Pieces

I’ve always loved puzzles…only those that aren’t too hard. I hate to be stumped, so yes I am not one of those people that does the NY Times Crossword in pen. Then again I’m not hip on crosswords anyway, unless I’m waiting for food and want to challenge my brain with the variety found on a kid’s placemat. But I LOVE word search puzzles (chalk this up to my grandmother too!)

I think this is part of my obsession that compels me to find just the right words and perhaps why my writing style seems so complex. As a local writer friend said over lunch yesterday, I appreciate a good turn of phrase…especially when I pen it. :0)

But finding words also means labeling, which holds a lot of power. One wrong word can give the reader a misconception. For instance intellectual is a far cry from bookish. As I reflect on my grueling (and mind-mushing) day-long seminar with Deb Dixon, I think that’s one of the reasons I can’t seem to make her “dominant impression” method work for me. Pin-pointing a job is way easier for me than expressing all my characters eccentricities with a single describer. (It’s like summing up my full-time job as a mere paper-pusher. Which is so far from the truth.)

Though she said that the adjective describing the noun (which shouldn’t simply be an occupation) could change as could the noun by the end of the book, I still can’t seem to boil it down. It’s like that one word that eludes you in a jumble of possibilities. You want to circle it, mark it through…simply say you’ve bested the problem. Yet it’s there taunting me like I’m not smarter than a fifth grader.

I completely get Goal, Motivation and Conflict, but I swear I’d have hives by the time I got through deconstructing my book. (I lamented like a teenager over how sucky my homework turned out and that was only 9-12 lines of text!) Honestly, I think I’d never write again if I made it to the end. I do plot with a brief outline from front to back, but I like those little surprises that pop up and take me somewhere unexpected. I’m not talking about a complete tangent that ruins where I’m going, but a little variation that adds umph to my punch. However, I will occasionally shave off a bit here and there to make a piece fit a hole. (You know the deal where you use your fist as a hammer to beat the cardboard into submission because you’re sure that’s where it should fit. Then you find out there’s a piece missing or a gaping hole where that tiny sliver should’ve slipped.)

It’s all about making it work. You can have a great story, but if you don’t have a combination of those three items (GMC) driving then you’ll fall flat. One safe assumption is that you can’t ever have one without the other. Deb, like my friend Emilie, says if you have the right motivation you can make your characters do just about anything. I think that’s a simple rule in life, which writing reflects. All great works boil down to one truth, but I don’t think the takeaway is always the same for everyone. Our life experiences are the filter that put what we perceive into certain contexts. That’s why labeling can be so constraining.

Just like rules. During my study of English, I heard more than one professor say in order to break the rules you first have to learn them. I treasure rules because they make society and everything within it run smoothly (for the most part). Believe me when I say, I am generally a conformist because I hate conflict. (Except in my books!)

But sometimes my spirit rears up and I break the rules (take that grammar). I haven’t done it to be bad-ass or to thumb my nose at others. I’ve turned from the tried-and-true because it worked for my story (though I still cringe inwardly over using the f bomb) and it’s gotten my work split out from the slush-pile horde. Is there any wonder why I almost purchased a ball cap bearing the line “well behaved women rarely make history”?

Deb said numerous times that an author can break the rules, but the person who does better have a stellar voice (as in good enough to make a grocery list bestseller material) and be exceedingly entertaining. I have my prolonged moments of brilliance, but to be on the safe side I better piece together the full picture of Deb’s puzzling method!

You know what I’m doing for homework, so how about you? What writing assignment has you stumped?

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Are you a puzzler? If you like jigsaw’s check out http://www.jigzone.com/ where you can make your own. I found the site via Kelley St. John’s spin-off http://www.theguycheats.com/ !

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