Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's all in the manuscript

Stop me if you've heard this before.

It's all in the manuscript.

I've certainly heard it before. Many, many times. Because that's what my dear friend and writing mentor, Doris Gwaltney, always tells me whenever I whine.

ME: I'm stuck.
SHE: It's all in the manuscript.

ME: I don't know how to fix this.
SHE: It's all in the manuscript.

ME: I need a pedicure.
SHE: It's all in the manuscript. (What, do you write with your feet?)

And dang it! I heard it again over at The Tollbooth, attributed to Tim Wynne Jones.

What does it mean?

It means that even if you've only written one sentence, you have the kernel of your story, right there on the page.

Say you write this melodramatic statement: "Molly kicked the statue and burst into tears."

ME: Who's Molly? Who or what is the statue? What surrounds it? How long ago was it erected? Why is she crying? Is that usual or unusual? Is she alone? What preceded the kick? Is she barefoot or wearing sturdy boots?

YOU: Oh, so you're saying...
ME: It's all in the manuscript.

I know, I know. You normally don't get stuck after one sentence. It happens later, a few chapters in, or after a rough draft runs out of steam. But the principle is the same.

I can't tell you how many times I've been up against a wall, and gone back into my manuscript looking for a clue, any clue as to how to move forward. And there it is! The detail I wrote "just because." At the time, I thought I was being a good writer by being specific--- adding depth and color with that throwaway remark about the aunt who always gives bad presents on Valentine's Day. But now! Now, I seize on it, and ask WHY?

And the next thing I know, that aunt has sent our main character a large, anatomically correct, rubber heart in the mail. (Not really. But you get the idea.) And see? I used this image once, earlier, and here it is again.

The absolute beauty of this, besides getting you moving again, is that if you do it often enough, your manuscript winds up as one incredibly tight, believable, and well-constructed piece of art that makes sense, no matter what angle you view it from. The pathways all connect. Things that matter to the lifeblood of the story are there, and only those things, because you've stayed close to the heart of your story. (Sorry, I know I'm stretching the cardio-puns here. )

So, trust yourself. If you wrote that your character loves peas, find a way to use that again. If you mentioned a bird singing, what kind of bird, and does it come back, and if it does, does it follow a regular pattern?

Shoes matter. The spot on the front sidewalk matters. The friend's dog matters. They all matter because you say they do. Otherwise, WHY would they be in your story?

So, get looking! It's all in your manuscript. Because if it isn't, or if you whine, you'd better start thinking of a way to use this rubber heart. Because I'm going to send it to you.


  1. This is exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you!

  2. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! I've heard this before, but never in quite the same, beautifully articulate and inspiring way. Thank you SO much!

    P.S. "You gotta have heart . . . lots and lots of heart . . ." :)

  3. I love reading about your writing process. It almost sounds like writers are getting tested daily, like you're having a battle over there sometimes with making that piece of art you speak of. And, as it should be, right? Not that being tested in that way, engaging in that battle, is a bad thing. It's all good for the soul. I mean, for the heart! The rubber heart and the real one.

    I'm having trouble expressing what I want to say. I'm not at all making light of it, which I'm afraid it might sound like.

    I guess what I mean is: I love how you expose the triumphs and the struggles, since so many people think writing a book must be "easy." That sounds kind of trite perhaps, but I'm not a novelist, so it's fascinating to read (and helpful to other writers, I'm sure, as Kate has pointed out).

    Blah blah. Not enough coffee yet. Me inarticulate now.

  4. Making something out of just a little bit IS fiction... right? Thanks for the reminder. There are some days I have to clean out the corners of my imagination to get to the good stuff.

    AND we should always put our heart into whatever we right (even if it's made of rubber).

  5. I called the salon to set up a pedicure just today, and they did not tell me I could find one FOR FREE in my manuscript. That's how they are, just in it for a buck. ;)


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