Long ago I left my first US publisher to take advantage of the opportunity to work with an award-winning editor. She turned out to be far less hands-on than I’d hoped, and she died after publishing just the first book in the project I’d begun with her, the Margaret Kerr novels (though we did work on two Owen Archers together). But in fact she left me with a terrific lesson. She pointed to a scene I’d written and said, “Here. This scene is an example of your best writing. It hums with life and hooks me.” It was the prologue to A Spy for the Redeemer. It was almost the last thing I wrote in that book, an exercise to “see” that character, the mason Ranulf de Hutton, before the event at the center of the book, and I liked it so much I left it in the first draft I’d sent to her, certain she’d remove it.
With that simple statement she clarified for me how to tell when I’m in good form. Thanks, Sara Ann.
I call this embodying a scene. Being present, being here in the scene as the point of view character. When I teach this in a workshop, I begin with an exercise–choose one of your characters at a calm moment in the story, have her pause in the doorway as she’s about to enter a room, and in this calm mindset, describe what she experiences through her senses as she scans the room. Then have her do the same thing as she’s about to confront someone in that same room later in the story. The contrast between the two should be revelatory. If not, you’re not really there.
I woke up dreading work this morning because yesterday I’d had a frustrating afternoon with a scene I finally jettisoned. Then I reminded myself that I’d set my intention to begin today with a scene in which Thomas Holland is sailing home anticipating with both joy and dread his reunion with Joan of Kent, his betrothed. This scene will be a contrast with a later scene when he discovers just how definitively Joan’s mother and King Edward have rejected the betrothal. Suddenly the energy I was feeling shifted from dread to delicious anticipation. Even though I know from long experience that neither of these scenes may make the final cut, they will help me embody Thomas, really get to the heart of him at this point in his life. This is what keeps me engaged in the writing life.