Writing at the tipping point

When does a scene suddenly ‘gel’? What is the ‘tipping point,’ the place where a scene which refused to be written or refused to come together in revision, goes from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I see where this is going to go, and where all the bits go’?

These are questions all working writers will face at some point, but which seem to be particular stumbling blocks for me.

Knowing when you’ve reached the tipping point

I’m borrowing a concept from business again, to use in writing a novel or a scene, because so many seminal business books cleanly formulate ideas are that then seem so obvious – only their concepts really weren’t, until someone pinned them down.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, is subtitled How little things can make a big difference. When I read it, I was struck by the image of a rock being pushed uphill until it was poised at the top of a ridge, and all it needed was one last tiny push to go over the top and start rolling unstoppably down the other side.

If the rock is allowed to roll backward, all the work used on the private side of the mountain in getting it to the top is wasted. But after that one little push, all the work now contributes to the avalanche effect as it rolls down the other, public side of the mountain.

It’s a business book. He is talking about ideas that get projects started and moving, and why some work and others fail.

You are a novelist when…

I’ve been writing professionally (which means you do it day in and day out, whenever you make the time and energy) since 1995, when I took a course in ‘Writing the Mystery’ and proceeded to write my first mystery novel.

Finishing that first novel – however bad – is the tipping point for a novelist: you have done what few set out to do, and even fewer accomplish.

You have plot, characters, voice, language basics down.

You have done it – there should never again be an unanswerable question: Can I write a novel?

But, except for our few one-novel wonder writers (Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell…), the next step is to do it again.

The next step – rinse, repeat:

And for that you have to revisit everything you’ve learned.

Because you can always see room for improvement, and the mere act of finishing one complete novel isn’t enough: the next one should be better.

For me this has involved starting a second novel (waiting for me to finish the current one to get back to it), a sequel to the first mystery, and then getting the idea for Pride’s Children handed to me, vouchsafed as it were, as a whole.

But to write Pride’s Children required learning a whole new way of doing scenes. Instead of a single protagonist, I chose three main characters. It is easy to stay in one point of view for a whole novel, significantly harder to learn to create – and keep separate – three distinct voices.

It is important to avoid head-hopping (unless that’s your thing and you’re doing it deliberately), hard to learn how to do that in scenes where two or three of your main characters interact. Harder to learn how to make seeing a scene from two different points of view, in two sequential scenes, can give readers the illusion of getting the story into their heads seamlessly.

Choices have to be made about who will get to ‘tell’ a scene. Sometimes these choices have to be reversed, and a different character’s point of view inserted.

When the first draft was finished, Pride’s Children got a major overhaul, and all the pieces settled into what will be their final places in the structure. That’s a scary thing to do, and a scary thing to say, but it was necessary: characters were combined, parallelism in the structure was made cleaner, and events fell into their natural order. I will know better next time?

All of this requires revision, and changes in the writer’s brain about how to do things differently.

Tipping point for a scene

My tipping point seems to come when ALL the bins are full and ready for piecing together. It’s as if my subconscious knows when I’ve left something out, either deliberately through fear or by not digging deep enough. Some of this can be fixed after getting events and dialogue in order (see Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction for techniques to identify sections without verve and examples of how to fix them).

An important section I tend to skimp on is what I have labeled ‘Reveal’ in my template: it is what there is of me in a scene. What I would like the reader to intuit that I share with the pov character. The ‘reveal’ is never easy – it’s personal, and I resist writing it down, much less using it. It isn’t something I will write explicitly; it is something that has to be subtext, revealing whatever it is I want/need to get out into the world. Making this extrinsic by writing it down in the template gives me an important focus for the scene – and reminds me to check through the scene after revising to see if my ‘reveal’ is floating, ghost-like, behind the words.

Emotions – the characters’, mine while writing, and the ones I wish to evoke in the reader – have to be written down in my notes before I can proceed. I can’t do these on the fly without having those notes somewhere. For me, it is the process of getting every little bit of juice out of my lemons before I can make a lemon meringue pie: like on a cooking show, the juices and other ingredients wait in their little bowls on the counter for me to stand by the stove and assemble the recipe.

When I am stuck – the logjam

It has come to the point where instead of wondering why I can’t finish a scene, I keep going over my lists of ingredients to make sure I have written enough of everything I need, and recorded pages and pages of notes from the recurring bouts of brainstorming that go on. Only then can I try to impose an order on the finished product.

It still takes time to saute and simmer: that can’t be hurried. But I can feel it in my gut: we’re ready to begin cooking. I LIKE that feeling. I’m getting better at having it happen earlier and more easily.

I’m also getting better at releasing the dogs of hell from the deep subconscious kennels. I’m afraid what you will think of me – and I have to accept that fear, but do it anyway. It’s the contract that I make with the reader: there is going to be something unique you will read from no one else.

It is never going to be easy, but I can stop fighting myself/getting in my own way. I have to remember that opening the vein to blood-let hurts.

But there is such a rush…

When do you know you’re at the tipping point, and it’s all downhill from here?


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