Last year I read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking. Her book is stunning, and her writing sucked me in with the first sentence. I wanted to reach out and hug her, so strong and compelling is her sadness. Even though I didn’t know her husband, I ached right along with her because she showed me what her love and pain felt like. Her book is about healing, so she simply allows the writing to go wherever it takes her. She wanders.
And she wanders better than most because she’s a Word Wizard and has a ton of fabulous books under her belt. It’s thoughtful and seamless, but it’s anything but effortless. It’s deliberate and always has a focus, and there is a reason for every sentence she writes. Even though her wandering appears somewhat random, she takes the reader down a meticulously planned road. This takes talent and experience.
This past week I read two manuscripts – one fiction, the other nonfiction – that emulate Joan’s style of Thoughtful Wandering. Neither of them worked for different reasons, so I thought I’d share my thoughts in hopes that it helps you with your writing.
Thoughtful Wandering off the Beaten Path
Your book must have a focus, a direction in which it needs to go from Point A to Point Z, right? Everything that happens between those points takes a logical path that ends you up to Point Z. If you stick to the beaten path and never wander very far, it can result in a dull, predictable story that has no flavor.
That’s why we have subplots and twists in the road. But ultimately, all those roads need to point in the same general direction. So it’s okay to wander, but don’t wander so far that the reader has no idea why you chose to go there in the first place. Stuff that goes nowhere is fluff. Fluff is fine when it’s used in very small quantities.
Joan’s narrative does this very effectively. She is devastated by her husband’s sudden death and her daughter being in a coma. She wanders off the path by talking about writing and how she’s always found meaning in words, and yet, words elude her, so she struggles in this new territory. It’s an effective wander that serves to expose more of her aching heart and how it has disrupted her view of the world.
In the hands of a newer writer, this could be a huge clunk because many writers don’t recognize the importance of “wandering on point.” The idea is to allow your thoughtful wandering bring bigger clarity to the protagonist. In Joan’s case, the wandering is a metaphor for what’s happening in her life and how to come to grips with it all.
Is there a place where you can use Thoughtful Wandering in such a manner that will enhance the depth of your protag?
The Golden Thread – Wandering has to have purpose
In the hands of a lesser writer, Thoughtful Wandering can have disastrous results – like the two fulls I read.
In both cases, I read through the first few chapters and couldn’t figure out why they were there other than to convey one particular point. I mean, it was easy to belt out one point, so what were they doing with the other five-ten pages? Filler? Character development? As it turned out, very little was going on that pertained to the story.
Where to start: It’s vital that you start your book in the right place. In the case of one manuscript, the author started her book in a bar. She’s a new hire to a large corporation and her new colleagues invite her out to a bar for a drink. Absolutely nothing is going on except a dull conversation that doesn’t expose anything about the protagonist or her new friends. Instead, it’s filled with the mundane, the ordinary. The dialog consisted of banal things like ordering a drink, adjusting her skirt on the stool, checking out men’s butts and, oh hey, by the way, a guy was murdered in the office ten years ago. Script in spooky spine chills.
%he sheer dullness of the chapter makes it painfully easy to see there’s only one reason this chapter even exists. What’s worse is it’s not even the plot, but simply the ignition/backstory to the actual plot, which is about the protag’s boss being murdered. We need to know about the previous murder in order for the protag to see an emerging pattern and, therefore, begin investigating the murder of her boss.
The problem is where she began the story. She instantly lost me with wandering. She had the Golden Thread by fitting in the previous murder, but it was set in a setting that made no sense. She could have exposed that previous murder in a much more engaging manner that would have sucked me in. Instead, the bar scene made my eyes glaze over.
It’s kind of like when my daughter insisted on dressing herself for the first day of Kindergarten. She did a fabulous job of brushing her hair and picking out her clothes. She look adorable in her little powder blue overalls, except for one thing…they were on backwards. And that’s what this chapter did for me, the wardrobe had possibilities, but it was dressed backwards, so the one Golden Thread stuck out like my daughter’s jumper. (And no, she wouldn’t let me change them around.)
Choose your first chapters with care. If I can’t see any reason for the scene other than that “one thing,” then I’ll know you have an organizational problem.
I’ve often said that the use of Backstory is great or evil, depending on the writer. It needs to be short and sweet, and it needs to have a reason for being in that particular scene. Effective Backstory is thoughtful wandering because you’re adding depth and dimension to your writing.This means that you have a transitional sentence going into the Backstory and a transitional sentence going out of the Backstory.
Evil Editor had murderous thoughts as she scanned her office. Papers hadn’t been filed and her phone’s message light was lit up like a Christmas tree on steroids, confirmation that the beagle hadn’t answered a single phone call. The worst offense was a half-eaten designer chewie bone and an empty bottle of tequila. She glared at the beagle with fire in her eyes.
As much as she wanted to fire her mangy secretary, Evil Editor looked past the stubborn defiance radiating from the beagle’s eyes and saw her as she was five years ago. A puppy. She’d arrived on Evil Editor’s front steps, dirty, cold, and abandoned. She was so weak and frightened, Evil barely heard the gentle whimper. She’d scooped up the shivering beagle and made a vow to always protect and care for her.
Those five years melted away away, and Evil suddenly felt ashamed. What had happened to them? How did they get to this place where her office was in disarray and the beagle a sloth and drunk?
Those sentences in blue are the transitional sentences that lead into Thoughtful Wandering (backstory), and back out of Thoughtful Wandering. Those transitional sentences are the Golden Thread that keep your wandering on track. What I wouldn’t do is continually go back in time to expose more of the relationship between the beagle and Evil Editor because it isn’t necessary. I’ve established their past, so why belabor the point? Only expose what you need, and have a solid reason for doing it. (And no, that isn’t how I really met the beagle)
Timing: Fluff and Backstory is tricky if used at a critical time when we’re still getting to know your protagonist. If you keep going there time and time again, you’ll lose me.
And this is what the second manuscript did. The protagonist is in the car to meet her mother at the airport. Very quickly, we learn the protag has cancer and has a strained relationship with her mother. That’s fine. What wasn’t so fine is how the author kept derailing the scene with near-constant” off-stage” scenes between the protag her mother. Backstory. Meanwhile, I know very little of the protag, so I can’t care about the relationship she has with her mother.
It was too much, too early, and I was unwilling to wander with her. Dole it out in little tidbits, so it makes you hunger for more. It’s like when I take one bite out of a chocolate bar. I want to inhale the entire thing, but it’s more fun to torture myself with eating that bar in small increments throughout the day. I think we established I’m not normal, right?
But what is normal is to tease your readers so they keep coming back for more. Since the author exposed everything at once, the subsequent scenes between the protag and her mother didn’t have the emotional impact. I’d already eaten the entire candy bar – metaphorically speaking.
You are all Word Wizards, and you’ve been given a powerful wand. The trick is knowing the proper incantations in which to wield that wand in an effective manner so that your Thoughtful Wandering leaves the reader begging for more.