Laura Whitcomb encountered me at a Willamette Writers event. I was an attendee, she was the featured speaker. I entered excited for our encounter. She smiled and posed for a picture and probably laughed after I disappeared into the crowd. Some people are not sure what to make of me, including me sometimes, but I’ve found a smile and intelligent banter can get you just about anything, including working up your own courage. Hah!
Whitcomb opened the evening lecture, Diving into the Fetch, by noting she completed twenty novels and novellas before selling her first book, A Certain Slant of Light. She went on to co-author a second, a non-fiction work with Ann Rittenberg, Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream, which published a year later.
How do you find such good fortune? As I said in the prior post, First Friday is for Friends: “You work hard, you mix it up, and you get lucky.” Remember, the luck comes when you’re working hard. Oh, and creating a good relationship with your agent has its perks, too. In a follow up email Whitcomb corrected an error I had made on which of her books sold on a synopsis and writing sample. She noted, “Your First Novel was already a deal Writers Digest had set up with my agent and she chose me to write it with her. She already had a great platform, being a hot lit agent, and she got her top client, Dennis Lehane, to write the forward. I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to get such a cool gig on my own with only one novel under by belt at the that point.”
Whitcomb’s success in finding a publisher made her giddy and sublimely willing to overlook the challenge to produce within the publishers dictated timelines. She stupidly (her word--not mine) said, “Yes! I can do this, because I’m so excited.” When the enthusiasm dust settled, she realized she had a limited number of weeks to deliver. She needed to come up with a way to get at a better draft faster. She needed the fourth or fifth draft the first time out. It was that fast part that drew the audience into hushed silence, including me. What? You can have a book in less than two-kazillion drafts? That got my attention.
Whitcomb highlighted her habits to us that evening, and the full detail is captured in her book, Novel Shortcuts.
Begin with a sense of wonder. All that matters is creating a sense of wonder for the reader, drawing them in to you and why you have to write the story.
The cross hairs moment. Grasp the most important moment in your novel, the one that lies within the rifle sight. It’s not always the climax. Example: in The Dead Zone by Stephen King, the cross hairs moment does not lie in the action part, nor the end, but it’s when the idea is posed, what if you could go back in time and kill… Whitcomb noted, “In my ghost story, A Certain Slant of Light, two ghosts are borrowing teenagers’ bodies. The cross hairs moment is when they realize they’re going to have to give the bodies back.” Aim for the cross hairs moment in your book and understand the compelling reason for each chapter.
Shortcut to the scene. Whitcomb is a list maker. She makes a list of what to put into a scene, basically what needs to happen and what she thinks the dialog will be, then she writes for ten minutes full speed thinking only about emotions, senses, metaphors and similes she might like. Her work at this juncture focuses on the creative development rather than the structure. She prints out her list and 10-minute writing sprint and puts them next to her keyboard. “I was able to write scenes three times faster, almost exactly like the published book,” she reported. “It’s like a cheat sheet, but it’s not somebody else, all of that is you.” What? Almost exactly like published book? I should give up now, right? (Nah).
Balance: scene, summary, and reflection. Whitcomb found her balance by accident, and equated her AHA moment to watching her four-year-old nephew riding his two-wheeler with training wheels. Once the paired wheels came off, he had trouble turning without putting his foot on the ground. The moment he learned to use his balance, throw his weight from side-to-side to initiate the turn, he had his AHA moment. The revelation on his face at this discovery was a mirror of hers when she unearthed the balancing act in her writing, juggling scene, summary, and reflection. Stabilizing this trio is like riding without training wheels.
To explain scene-summary-reflection she described developing an emergency room scene. “You capture everything that is said (scene). You summarize people going home, their first night, first week, that takes a paragraph (summary). Or, you go directly from the emergency room and encounter the character thinking about death. Here the narrator ruminates or philosophizes (reflection).” She came to her balance with practice. “My first reaction as a young writer was to only write scenes, some are boring, because I should have had made them summaries.” (There's hope! Not everything in print is perfect).
Visual Aids. Have visual clues handy that communicate who your characters are and all the details you need to keep track of to weave into the story. “Sometimes it gets complicated, so draw yourself a map.” Whitcomb described her map, but for some things you had to be there, me trying to relay would get us both lost.
Stealing tricks from the best. Whitcomb assured, “It’s actually not stealing, because you’re not really taking material from anyone.” Doing this helped save her a lot of time rewriting tricky or difficult scenes, “Writing a really great entrance for a character, writing something to foreshadow before a climax, a scene that has mixed perception—what happens in the scene perceived one way by one character and completely different by the another, sex scenes.” Her technique is to read an author who excels at a particular specialty, pull their scene apart, and emulate it.
Let's start a list of great scenes to review to aid our writing. Leave the author, scene-type, and book example in the comments.
Don’t ignore Ghosts. “Ghosts are little thoughts that keep bugging you, even though they seem pointless and you keep pushing them away.” She mentioned items that float through her head, song lyrics, a scene from a play, and admonished, “Pay attention. The ghost is coming to you for a reason. There’s something in that seemingly irrelevant thought that is going to help in what you’re working on.” (This idea might also help slow you down before pulling the trigger on that not-ready-for-agent-review query).
Use Art. Allow art to get at the deeper emotion, the real core emotion that’s hidden under layers and layers. “Listening to music puts me in the mood of my current novel faster than anything else. True beautiful, memorable and strong, and preferably without lyrics.” Whitcomb creates mix tapes to jump start her writing. A favorite source are sound tracks from movies.
It stinks. What to do? Back track. Read the last sentence first. Is it bad? Keep reading backwards. If she hates the next to the last sentence she reads the next-next to the last sentence, until, “Now that is the last great sentence I wrote!” She recommends to keep going back until you find quality, and delete everything in between. “I don’t need slightly better written crap, I just need good stuff,” Whitcomb assessed.
I need a miracle. Goals. Self-imposed deadlines helped Whitcomb get past the finish line, and she works best when they are attached to something real. “I want to get the first draft done by 'this date,' because my friend is going out of town, and she said she’d read it.” Make it real to make it work, and support it with positive visualization, a mantra or made up word. Get creative!
SUCCESS IS IN THE LIGHT
Laura Whitcomb's success has come from asking the what if question. She uses well known or historical events and asks, “What if something is happening underneath the surface that you dOn’t know about?” She explores the murky depths and while she may write about dark places, she doesn’t actually write horror, despite being listed in the category, right after Twilight and, er, Twilight.
“I always write about the light, I believe there is light and love at the core of the universe and inside every human being. It’s why were here,… sometimes human beings hate, and do things that are dark things, but I think we are hopeful beings. That’s what draws me to the stories I read and the stories I write. We are lit from the inside with a common flame,” she concluded.
Burn bright little flame, I've got some writing to do, and quickly!