My beloved writing mentor changed my life in four ways.
She is the one who encouraged me to turn a short story that was going nowhere into what became my first novel. Actually she demanded that I do so. She saw the potential in both the story and in me, and thus a new story was born.
As I worked to create that novel, she taught me two things: never use semi-colons in fiction, especially in dialogue, and be sure one’s characters ‘earn their places’ in the plot’s story and timeline. I was still fairly new to writing fiction at that point — though I’d written a few stories over the years that remained unpublished, most of my writing had been non-fiction and poetry — so it took me a while to get used to my mentor’s first edict. When she told me, though, that we can’t see punctuation when we talk with people, it finally made sense. Neither can our characters — because they are real people, after all — so semi-colons aren’t necessary in dialogue. Nor should we use them in descriptive narrative because that’s a sign that we’ve inserted ourselves into the story as authors rather than narrators.
Her advice to let the characters earn their places in the storyline came to mind (again) early this morning as I lay awake trying to figure out a way to get from one scene to another in the novel I’m currently working on. The first draft of my first novel was much shorter than the finished product because I took the characters from Point A to Point E without having to go through Points B, C, and D. When I got stuck, I would take the easy way out and the narrator would say something like ‘After a few weeks …’ or ‘Two months later …’ or ‘Eventually …’
Oh boy, did she get upset with me when I did that! ‘I want to know what they went through!’ she exclaimed. ‘Why did they make those decisions?’ In other words, ‘What made them do such-and-such? What were their thoughts and emotions? How were others affected?’ I learned that the final outcome involves a lot more than time, that weeks or months can’t gloss over our characters’ lives. That doesn’t work in our own lives — though sometimes we might want it to — and so it shouldn’t in our stories.
So I struggled and worked to explore the characters’ lives, to expand their own struggles and explorations. Lo and behold, it worked, and that’s when ‘my’ characters came into their own, no longer mine to manipulate. I still remember that amazing moment when I realized the people in the book were actually talking to me. They had their own stories to tell, not mine, their own places to go, and I became their virtual scribe. They had to do the walking, take the detours and the stumbles, to come out on the other side. It turned out that their destination was not at all what I had planned out, and it was a much better place, thanks to them and my mentor.
And the fourth thing she taught me? Always put a tablespoon of dried coffee grounds in your brownie mix.
I’m still stuck in this current novel — no amount of early morning tossing and turning brought any bright ideas or messages from the characters — but I do have brownie mix and coffee. Maybe that will help. Everything else that Leslie Williams told me did, and for that I will be eternally grateful.