Monday, December 13, 2010

Find the Hum - A She Reads Guest Post by Ariel Lawhon

Five years ago I stumbled across an article in The New York Post and I knew, after reading nothing but the title, that I had a novel on my hands. Sort of like I knew my husband was the one. Not just a, “Hey, you’re kinda cute,” feeling but rather “This is going to be a long-term relationship” certainty.

But. There were issues.

The story didn’t love me back.

As a matter of fact it has a mind of its own. And the main character? Well, she’s a real piece of work. I don’t technically
like her. Sure she’s a fascinating literary specimen, but I won’t invite her over for tea any time soon. Mostly she sits in her corner booth, leering at me. Smoking like damp wood and daring me to tell her story. Her name is Stella. She makes me itch.

And that’s where I’ve been, on and off, for the last five years. Poking this novel with a stick. Starting to write and then abandoning the draft, instinctively knowing that I’m off target.

So last month, after eulogizing my third attempt (read NaNoWriMo fail), I went back to my premise – that seed of an idea that keeps me committed to this novel – and I started asking, “What if?”

(Had I read John Truby’s book,
The Anatomy of Story, years ago I would have started with that step.)

I filled up four notebook pages, front and back, with “What if” questions. And then, about the time my hand started to cramp, something fell onto the page.Almost as if my pen spit the idea out by itself. I stood back and blinked at it for a moment.

What if this is more than a murder mystery? What if this is a novel about the secrets women keep?

My synapses began to fire. Two additional characters that have lingered around the periphery stepped into the light, shook my hand, and took their places at that corner booth (Stella was none too pleased but I don’t care. She made room). And I understood how these three women are connected, to each other and to the story itself.

And there it was. That hum I’ve been chasing around the page for years. A sort of mental purr.

I say all of this for two reasons:
First, a good story can’t be forced. I am convinced, now more than ever, that a novel-in-progress is like a great marriage or a fine wine: it gets better with time.

Second, when you find The One – that story that makes your heart pound – don’t start writing immediately. Give yourself a chance to find the hum. And if your novel doesn't love you back, perhaps begin by asking, "What if?"


Latayne C Scott said...

I like the description of the hum. Here in New Mexico we have the famous and mysterious "Taos Hum," a sound many people hear and whose source no one has identified.

One website says it causes loss of sleep, dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, anxiety, irritability, deteriorating health, inability to read or study because of the incessant hum.

Most hearers say the noise begins abruptly, never abates, interferes with sleep and is more noticeable inside a house or car than outside. Some describe it as sounding like a diesel engine idling in the distance.

Authors, do you know that feeling?

I know where it comes from. We spent our honeymoon in Taos and that's about when it began. I happen to know that this phenomenon is the book ideas humming in my head that have broken free and plague other people too. But don't tell anybody. I don't have time for any of those government investigations.

l said...

That's it!

My work in progress has been giving me fits lately. Maybe I need to sit back and ask "what if" for a while before I continue.

The funny thing is, how did my husband (who would pretty much do anything instead of writing all day) know that taking a break would be the best course to follow? :0)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Finding the hum is the real love affair of writing for me. Sure, I love taking a crack at the first draft. I'm mostly miserable during edits. But the brainstorm, witnessing the spark turn into a raging fire. I love that!

It's happening now with a future novel, but that novel needs to wait its turn so I'm taking lots of notes.

Great point about the 'what if'.

~ Wendy

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Latayne: I was born and raised in Taos. And though I've never actually heard that particular Hum myself, I am quite familiar with the legend. Maybe I couldn't hear it over the racket in my brain caused by all these stories rattling around?

Heather: I think "What if?" is the single most important question that novelists must ask their works-in-progress. I'll never begin another project without spending days, weeks perhaps on that one question.

Wendy: I imagine the hum is something that bobs and weaves through the entire novel writing process. It starts at the idea that gets us hooked and then reappears at different stages to keep us on track.

Heidi said...

This is a great post, and exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks!

Christa Allan said...

I love the story of the story! Thanks for the "hum" alert. It's yet another good reason for me to listen.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Oooh, Stella sounds interesting. Love how you wrote this post. It makes me want to read your books.

Story and Logic Media Group said...

I have a secondary character that is hard to like. I had to journal with her to find out why she acts like she does through much of the story.

In fact that reminds me I need to journal with the characters who are eluding me at the moment.

But the secrets women keep. Now I want to read your story when you finish!!!

So often I find the story doesn't change, but I finally learn what it is really about . . . way down the road. And the focus of the story has to change to bring it out.

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

I can not wait to meet Stella. What a great discription of her. I can just see her sitting in her corner booth daring you to sit down and visit.

Marti Pieper said...

Years ago, I copied a newspaper clipping into my writing file. I knew it begged to be written. I made a small attempt but wasn't sure how or what to do. Still, the story pursued me.

Only this week, after some prayer about fiction-writing, I remembered that story and resolved to revisit my file. Thanks for reminding me of the question I need to ask. I'll be listening for the hum!