So, this is where writing exercises come in. Before I start a new draft, it feels a bit like I’m walking in the dark, though the room isn’t completely black, not like it was in the beginning. Oh, maybe draft 2 gave me a candle. Maybe by #3, a flashlight. I think now I have a nice floor lamp with a low-wattage, energy-efficient bulb. But, still, I bump into things.
I don’t just dive into the novel and start revising. I spend days, more likely weeks, just freewriting, just thinking about my character on the page, typing as fast as I can about what has happened to her, what still needs to happen, and most importantly, how she feels about all that. And, I do some writing exercises. I dig out my books from grad school and from when I’ve taught writing, and find ideas to get me thinking.
My favorite book of fiction exercises is titled “What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. This book, and many others like it, contains an exercise on characterization that urges the writer to complete a list of basic information about her characters, the idea being that these items (such as hobbies, education level, family status, etc.) will affect the character’s actions. This morning, I’m re-reading an essay by Robert Boswell that I had tucked into the Bernays and Painter book called “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark,” (Poets & Writers July/August 2008) that says questions like this are just too simplistic, at any stage of the writing process. Boswell urges writers to go farther, to ask things like “What did your character forget to do this morning?” and “What stupid thing kept him or her awake last night?” These kinds of questions are more useful to me right now at this stage of the process, so that’s what I’m doing this morning, putting myself in my protagonist Louisa’s head and answering questions like this. As for what “stupid thing kept [me] awake last night,” I can tell you it was rewriting this novel, but I wouldn’t call that stupid.