I’m feeling much better about my novel this week, despite my nerves this weekend. This Monday in class I shared 4 pages from the book. This was a bit of a milestone for me – the first time anyone had looked at a draft of something from this novel, or any of the work I’ve been doing in the last few years. I still have a buzz from the anxiety going in. I was worried beforehand about what the response would be, but the input from the workshop turned out to be very helpful. The course has a mishmash of people from different backgrounds and talents, so they were able to catch little details like – “malpractice” is different from “negligent malpractice” and “a broken eardrum doesn’t release enough fluid to drain down your neck”. And the group seemed to read right past the names I gave the characters in the story without blinking. For some reason I had the irrational fear someone would say – “that name’s ridiculous!” or “you spelled his name wrong!”. My biggest stumbling block has been naming my badguys. I have much appreciation for Julia’s help on this. Her suggestion that they be named after the insurance code they fall under saved the day. My readers all approved of “The Fives” (for Section V) as an appropriately ominous name for the baddies.
Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of technical details that go into a book. Another member of the group has been researching her story for 10 years, and while she’s become a real expert on the topic (which of course I can’t reveal on this blog), I think it makes her sad to know that a lot of the work she’s done will never make it into the final book. I don’t want to spend 10 years studying gene sequencing, the legal system, and medicine, but I do need to know enough for my characters to sound like authorities and pass the B.S. test for readers. My story is science fiction, which means that when I need to I can invent workaround technologies that “don’t exist yet”, but I think the closer I stick to the real world, the more the characters and their problems will resonate with modern readers, so I’m doing my best to stick with what I think will actually happen in the future. Having a sounding board of writer-scientists and writer-lawyers reading my book is invaluable. Even hearing the thoughts of someone who’s closer in age to my characters makes a tremendous difference.
I’m also following the advice of the instructor to read fiction while I’m writing. One of my personal writing heroes on this book is Michael Crichton who, in Jurassic Park, perfectly straddled the line between telling a story the layperson could understand and including enough details to sound authoritative. I read the book when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and even I understood it (mostly). Unfortunately, his most recent, Next, seemed to sacrifice character development and plot to service the Gee-Whiz science details. (or maybe I’m giving Jurassic Park too much credit?) Another writer I’m paying close attention to now is Stephen King. Yesterday I picked up The Stand, which I’ve heard many people say is his best work, and so far I’m impressed. The book begins with a mutant flu virus with a 94% mortality rate. King doesn’t bother (at least so far) getting into the hows or whys of the virus’ creation. Instead he focuses on the character’s responses and the believability of the world around the epidemic. The book is riveting and scarier because of the vagueness of the science involved. The book’s realism comes from his specificity on the characterization. He doesn’t hesitate to use brand names and describe ailments in gruesome detail. It’s making me seriously rethink the amount of detail I want to include in each scene and where that details needs to be focused.
So overall, I’m getting some great insights from this writing workshop. My word count is still sadly low, but with luck the prep work I’m doing now (still working on that chapter by chapter outline) will mean less rewriting down the road.