Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Sweet Potatoes in Your Stories

Four years ago, my husband accepted a call to a church located in an agrarian community. I'm city born and bred, so I knew little of life among the crops. I'd seen corn and cotton in passing as I traveled down roads from one town to another, but I had no idea when seeds were planted, when crops were harvested, which crops depleted nutrients in soil, and which replenished them.

I also didn't know sweet potatoes were planted beneath tobacco. I don't know when the seeding occurs, but as the tobacco grows, so do the sweet potatoes. The tobacco is harvested in the fall, and what's left behind is a sparse, unidentifiable vegetation. The unsuspecting haven't a clue the versatile and nutritious sweet potato lies beneath.

What Lies Beneath?
We've had the privilege of gleaning fields in search of these delights, and they're not always easy to find. We'd wiggle our fingers in long mounds of dirt that once nurtured tobacco until we hit something hard. Sometimes we would pull out a small potato, barely worth keeping. Other times, a rock. On occasion, though, we would dislodge what's referred to as a #1 or #2 potato that the commercial harvester missed. A big one that would compliment dinner that night.

Authors, we often have sweet potatoes in our story as well. The first draft with its plot and character motivation are, like the tobacco, the primary crop. We revise it a time or two (or four or more), fixing typos and polishing grammar, tweaking storyline here and there. Once finished, we breath relief and submit it to an agent, editor, or a contest hoping someone will see its brilliance.

But there may be something lying beneath the obvious action, motivation, and characterization. Something deeper that we inexplicably build into the story and often overlook. At times, our subconscious is aware it's there, and forbids us to continue. A short-term writers block can occur, and we blame events in our lives for the drought, not realizing we're missing an important element in the story.

When that happens, grab a spade and start digging. Why did this character react like this when you expected her to do that? What's driving her? Not what you think is driving her, but what, deep in her heart, pushes her forward and causes her to behave contrary to your perceptions? Why did this secondary character suddenly move to the forefront? What is their connection? It's there. Keep digging, even when you hit a rock.

Ask questions. I did, and by digging around in my stories, asking myself those questions, writing flash fiction based on the novels, and considering the imagery I used in scenes, pondering why I used what I used, I found several sweet potatoes. In an early novel, I discovered a denied fear of death drove one character's obsession for another. An agnostic, he harbored a deep fear that maybe, just maybe, there was a God and the other character somehow held the answer. Through events in another novel, my protagonist discovered an impatience, and then a prejudice, against a class of people. I'm still sifting through the dirt in another novel, searching for the sweet potatoes there.

So, you've written a novel, then revised and polished it. It may be perfectly fine as is, and, like tobacco, even addicting......Sorry, I had to include that. But for a richer, deeper story, hunt for the sweet potatoes before you ship it off to market.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass is a great aid in helping authors dig deep into their stories.

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