Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Discovering more about Onion

My post on false notes appears at blogging in black today. If you read that...you'll see what's going on.

Here's the post:
While working on my YA, I almost added a personality trait to a secondary character which would’ve taken the novel down a different route and – in the composition of the novel-- added a false note.

False notes happen when a certain event, character trait, or scene in a novel simply jangles with the rest of the novel. A writer can often get over with false notes and still write a viable novel but it will not be the novel her soul set out to write.

But in my experience, false notes happen when the writer has lost track of what her story was originally about, or simply never understood the theme of her story in the first place.

The first thing one must remember in writing is that the author very often doesn’t know what the narrator is writing about. Plain and simply, this means we really don’t know what a story is about. Those who set out to write a formulaic story, or a preachy Christian story, or worked from an outline at the beginning of a story, are aware of what they are writing. But if one has simply sat down at a computer and allowed the first draft of a story to spill out, one doesn’t know what one’s soul is talking about. It’s been said that a writer discovers a story in the first draft. But often it takes three or four drafts – plus a long conversation with an astute writing friend—to finally see what has been before us all the time.

Many writers can get away with false notes, because
a) their readers have been trained to think of certain stories in a certain way
b) their readers just don’t read that deeply
c) the writer has written the false note so compellingly that the original intent of the novel gets lost.
d) The writer herself does not want to acknowledge her own inner conflicts that have brought about the story.
e) The writer is a deep thinker but is too fearful, lazy, or tired to actually write the story the muse has given her.

So if a reader or writer has been trained to believe that love stories happen in a particular way, anything the author’s subconscious muse might be saying to the contrary will not be seen by either the reader or the writer. The writer will create the false note and the reader will accept it as the story’s truth.

The false notes feels off-key to a true lover of stories. It jangles. We have all been to movies where we find ourselves saying to our movie-going buddy, “What the heck just happened?” And either the movie-going buddy agrees with us or totally disagrees. I remember watching a film made by a feminist woman filmmaker. It was a history of her family and in the voice-over, the narratore kept saying how ignorant and unenlightened her father was but dang! Every scene with the mother was cold and loveless. The filmmaker didn’t seem to realize that despite all her mockery of the male figure, she was showing us his sweetness. At the end, when the credits rolled there was a total disconnect. Even the youngest kid would’ve told her that the ending just didn’t jive. Probably the only person who could’ve watched the film and not seen the false note would be another feminist.

False notes tend to happy in films that are meant to have happy endings or which are meant to be polemic. So often I’ve raised my eyebrows at the end of a thirties heist film when the bad guy dies and the voiceover says that bad people are thugs and not heroes! Yet, the entire film was about how brave and cocky these gangsters were.

So when do false notes creep in? A false note will creep in around the third draft when the author begins to think that certain traits should be added to certain characters. In my case, my character had two rivals for her affection. Both were good boys with interesting traits, but I wanted her with my main male character who was being quite unpleasant. I therefore had to find a way to make the other guy unpleasant. I figured I’d make him a racist. But this “evil sin dropped into a book in the middle of nowhere” just didn’t jive with my beta reader who had astutely seen what my narrator was talking about. In short, it didn’t matter how bad or how unpleasant my main male character was, my main female character was gonna love him no matter what. It was going to be a painful road for her, the readers would want to give her a good shake or throw the book down – but they were not going to be given the loophole of a false note. Essentially, the narrator of the story was writing a composition about devastating, sacrificial love for a possibly not-to-good person and I the author had not seen that my story was basically an unhappy tragic love story with a somewhat perverse ending.

The best way to avoid false notes is to ask a good beta reader what the story is saying to them. Tell them to be brave and to tell you what they dislike or like about the main characters. Tell them not to think about marketability. All you need to know is what the narrator is telling you in this story. Is the narrator happy about the situation, bitter, hurt? After you’ve been told the gist of your story, then you the author will discover and know what the narrator and true composer already knows.

Anyways, the more and more I work on Onion the more I discover about it. First I realized it's A) about her addiction to him as well as his addiction to drugs. Sure she's his sober companion but her love and attitude toward him isn't particularly sober or sane. B) It's about sexual orientation and what makes us fall in love with certain people and C) it's about the worship of external beauty that occurs in the main character's life because her harsh upbringing combined with her growing up watching way too much TV infused her with a Cinderella complex.

I've made Ben a real person because I hate stories where the gorgeous guy turns out to be a jerk. I wanted Denise to have her Cinderella dream but I also wanted to examine it.

So on the one hand it's a very Christian book because it explores the world, the flesh, and the devil --- how the media makes us worship beauty. But on the other hand, it's not exactly Christian because I really want to go deeply into this...and I don't think the Christian publishing world would want me to write about this -- especially when I talk about sexual shame. So.....
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