When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.
This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.
From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Maybe it’s a tidbit of dialogue or a character’s motivation for his/her action. Whatever it is—the scene needs fixing, and I end up feeling grateful to my subconscious for finding the problem.
But when I woke mulling over the whole plot…? Ugh.
Then Jane Kurtz came to mind, and I found my notes from her lecture. I asked myself: what questions did I pose at the beginning of this story? Have I answered them? What does my protagonist want most of all, and does the action in the climactic scene have anything at all to do with that desire? How sympathetic (or not) is my main character?
I got back to work.
I did a lot of free writing that morning. I set aside my computer and wrote by hand, stream-of-consciousness. I looked at the structure of the story and asked which parts were necessary and which could go. I pulled two full chapters and slid them into a might-use-later file. I wrote a new scene in which characters laugh at my protagonist, replacing a scene where the protagonist got angry. (Anger doesn’t engender sympathy the way humiliation does.)
Two months ago, I thought this novel was done. This month, it’s getting lots of work. It still needs work. But it’s getting better.
And to Jane Kurtz and Vermont College of Fine Arts, I say: thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for more than you know!