On Writing: Lift Characters Off The Page

I keep a rejection letter on my wall, the best one I’ve ever received, as I write this fifth incarnation of a memoir.

The first memoir effort from twenty-five years ago came shortly after I’d returned from living in Mexico. One publisher said, “Writes like Hemingway; looks like Lauren Bacall.” He knew me from New York days and was referring to my short, blunt writing style and my twenty-plus-years-ago actress face.

The next effort was the same material in novel form. I reached three-hundred manuscript pages and still had two years to add. I stopped.

The Mexico years are the back story in the present incarnation.

Then I went to Hawaii and then to Georgia and then Santa Fe. That’s become the current front story. But when I first wrote that Hawaii story, I wanted to teach what I’d learned, so I used the story but mostly I taught what I’d practiced with clients since Santa Fe. A self-help book. A publisher kindly said, interesting, but “Too much of you in this for a self-help book.”

Okay, then.

The fourth incarnation was memoir with bits of teaching interspersed and italicized copies of letters and journal entries. This from the years when “truth” in memoir was much disputed and a famous book’s author in trouble for making whole cloth out of shreds of truth. I added the letters to prove my veracity.

This is where the rejection letter comes in from Elise Capron at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

le“Though we are impressed with your writing and compelling story….the work didn’t quite lift off the page for us in the way it must.”

I didn’t know what she meant. But it felt important enough to hang it on the wall of my writing room, in the middle of a wall of Post-Its, and study from time to time. What did it mean to have writing “lift off the page?”

She’d also wished me “every success.” I figured the bold every meant something.

This year, when I finally went back to writing the memoir…again…I’d been laboriously, and I do mean laboriously, studying books on writing. When I found Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer, I was saved. She began her book writing about right-brain and left-brain writers: Plotters and Pantsers, as she calls them.

I’m definitely a Pantser. I write intuitively and have no idea where I’m going. (i.e. 300 pages into a novel and overwhelmed with covering two more years of life in Mexico.) I am intuitive, sort of like having a giant mushroom growing out the right side of my head.

But lo and behold, struggling through her book, and after two months of doodling and fretting and making notes, I actually got out three giant Post-It pages, drew a plot line, and stuck the pages up on my wall (I also have a lot of poster sized Post-It sheets if anyone needs one). I knew where to begin and where the climax was, the front story and the back story. That was huge. I haven’t quite figured out how to do the top-of-the-line action lists and bottom-of-the-line narrative and back-story as I’m still a Pantser, but I have outlined each chapter on more Post-Its after I write it and stuck them to the chart (the map of Hawaii hides the first quarter of the book’s Post-Its but I needed the map and I was running out of wall).

plot lineI’ve also been reading a lot of fiction, and throughout, I’ve studied characters. I won’t go over that whole list, but rather suddenly, I realized what “lift off the page” meant. It meant characters had to go from the page into the reader’s mind and head and imagination. Oh.

So I’ve been studying character building and realized that building a character, whether on paper or as an actor, is basically the same. You have to show character quirks and habits. I’ve also had some film work during this writing process and had a chance to pay attention to how I build character traits when acting, a process that’s often intuitive.

So when’s this memoir going to be done, I hear you asking. Here’s the plan (I actually have a plan). The first draft finished this winter and rewrites and polishing in the spring.

And yes, I’m going to re-query Elise Capron. If nothing else, I need to thank her.

17 thoughts on “On Writing: Lift Characters Off The Page

  1. Oh. A plot line on the wall. Good Heavens. I never do that. 🙂
    I “write” every story in my head first. I never start writing until I have the whole story in my head.
    If it is novel, and a long one, I jot down a sketchy plan on one page. That’s all. Otherwise, it’s all in my head.
    Maybe I should try the plot line thing. 🙂
    Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome. Working on this memoir told me I needed to understand the plot line and not just write. I knew what it was “about” and what the stories were, but by I’d written a novel… just writing, and by the time I got to 300 pages, I realized just writing wasn’t going to work. My understanding of plot line came from Martha Alderson’s book, The Plot Whisperer. She addresses both intuitive writers and those who plot. But once I drew out the plot line and put it on my wall and stared at it, I realized what the ending had to be and from the ending I could intuit the crisis turn, and I knew what the intro was, and viola, I had a plot line. And that gave me the freedom to know where I was going. I didn’t do all the other layers of character development etc that Alderson writes about, but having that line was huge.

      1. Thanks for the tip. I will look her up. Visually it made think of the Time line in detective TV series. How it helps them solve their case. I imagine, it helps them figure out what the story might be. Starting from the end. A useful train of thought to apply to another story. Thank you.

    2. I should have re-read the essay before posting my last response. This reply is shorter. Else Capron’s assistants rejected the memoir, but I keep going. Now on the upteenth revision. Have cut another 250 words. “It goes on, Judah.” The best line from original Ben Hur not replicated in this current, not so great remake.

      1. Wait, wait, wait! I do remember the movie. One of the first “big” movies I saw on screen. Don’t remember that line (and I haven’t seen the remake). When is it said?

      2. Okay. So here’s how it went. Judah and Masala have a chariot race; Masala has knives on his chariot wheels and tries to guide his horses next to Judah and destroy the spokes in Judah’s chariot wheels. I forget quite how it happens, but Masala’s chariot turns over and Masala is trampled by other horses. He is carried to a tent, where he’s put on a table, bloody, and Judah comes in to see him. Masala tells Judah that his mother and sister are in the leper colony; Judah collapses in grief, and Masala says, “It goes on Judah.” And dies.

      3. I remember that movie and scene vividly. Even more so since, living in Africa I had lepers on the street. No fingers, no nose… Quite impressive for a 6 years-old. When I saw the lepers.

      4. Whhhooo. I’ve read about lepers but seeing them on the street as a youngster must have made an impression. I visited the island where Fr. Damien’s leper colony still butts against the cliff wall in stark isolation, but on the street??? Gosh.

      5. When you are born and raised in “the south”, Asia, Africa, you understand some things very quickly. The human condition is one of great misery. Still. Though it has improved globally. The fortunate ones (us) have to remember that. Have a lovely week Janet.

  2. Hi! Are you still up for the guest-blogger thing? I was trying to send you an email but you don’t have a contact page. Let me know if you’re still interested. Thank you! 🙂

    1. Yes, I’d love to. janet.sunderland@att.net

      I don’t have a contact page because I’m not sure what email address to use and where I’d find the email if I did have one. Maybe you could recommend? I guess I could use my main address as it’s all over the web anyway and I have a good virus program. I have a gmail addy that I rarely use. And then I’d either have to upload and connect it to Windows Live Mail (which I like a lot because it has all my email in one place) or I’d have to go find it in Google mail and other than using it as a search engine, I want to stay out of Google’s clutches of circles!

  3. And that’s the way feedback is supposed to work. Great story! Wise insight.
    You are so right about character building and the little gestures and habits that allow readers to identify with even an outrageous character.
    And remember when we talked about the triangle and the viewers entry point in visual art? We readers need a route in, a place of exchange, where readers and characters enter and exit one another’s worlds.

    1. I remember the points of entry you showed me. Still have the photos. I think I need another walk to look at gestures in paintings.

      I also need to talk to you more about your last sentence. I understand the concept, need an example to help me see.

      Thanks so much, Susan. You have a unique vantage, balanced as you are between the visual and literary worlds.

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