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.