Category Archives: el laberinto: the writing process


Hi all,

So I showed chapters 2 and 3 to the writers’ workshop. (Well, not three, some later chapter, but whatever.) Went over very well. People liked the family dynamic, the warmth, lots of things I hoped they would like.

In a very amusing couple minutes, some people thought some stuff that happened in a funeral scene was too over-the-top, like I was trying to be wacky and people wouldn’t act like that. Of course, the things they were talking about were things that literally happened at my grandfather’s funeral two summers ago. That’s not to say the critique wasn’t important. A reader’s got to buy into what’s happening, and they won’t have you there to explain that it really COULD happen like that. I just laughed a little bit.

I got a lot out of the workshop, but I can’t really be in it anymore, because my clinic sort of blew up this semester, and after all the New Bedford post-raid stuff, it turns out both of my asylum clients have their interviews in the next three or four weeks.

This semester has been terrible for writing pages. Just terrible. It didn’t work out like I thought at all, and things usually do. But what can you do? On the other hand, I got all the first-person insight into the asylum process that I hoped I would, and was a witness to the aftermath of an immigration tragedy here in the state. I’m still trying to figure out how I want to write about that, because there’s so much to tell. But I know I will be writing about it, and soon.

I won’t forget Mike and Mili and the Garzas. I’m not going to let their hundred-plus pages just linger around. I just now have people’s families and safety to worry about in an immediate way, and then? Finals. I hope they understand.

Chapter Two

I killed my truck’s engine outside ‘Ama’s house at five-fifty a.m. It was the Monday of my second week of work, and it was way too early – at this hour you could only hear a couple cars swoop down Ocean Boulevard, and three or four seagulls winging toward the water line. But ‘Ama got up exactly at six, and so my sisters and I had to get in there before she opened her eyes. I hauled my guitar case out of the back and met Becky at the curb, blinking sleepily behind her glasses.

Sorry for the absence – the moot competition was all-consuming. The writers’ group really responded well to the first chapter, which was very gratifying. They specifically praised the voice and the main character for being real and interesting – a GIANT relief since I’ve been terrified trying to write a 1st person male narrator was an extremely bad idea, and I feel much better about plugging on with that kind of feedback from basically neutral folks. I LIKE Mike, and I like writing him.

I’m sending them the 2nd chapter this week. It was nice to dive in and patch it back together. Chapter 2 used to be Chapter 1, so it needed some continuity and exposition-trimming work. I only wish I were forced to turn stuff in every week, since it’s been so hard to keep writing this semester without it. Hopefully now that the competition is over I can use the free(er) evenings to that purpose.

Time Out

No page count this week. No pages, either. I thought I would feel bad the first time I missed a weekly goal, but I don’t. Because I just did a ton of work and turned this ship around.

Instead of just plugging along and feeling really ambivalent about it, I stopped and decided I did want a plot outline after all. I’m not used to a story of this scope, and it needs multiple plot threads and arcs. I needed a basic roadmap for all five members of my novel’s family, and notes about the other family members and significant others who show up. Characterization comes easily to me. Plot does not, and I wanted to feel like I had something planned that could actually be 275 pages, which wasn’t happening with what I was writing.

So I scribbled events on slips of paper, including events I’d thought of when I conceived of the novel that weren’t appearing in what I was writing so far, and started moving them around on my rug. I stood over it to see if it felt like there was actually rising action and a climax instead of just random episodes. I moved a child going missing, which was becoming a central event of my manuscript, into the first chapter where it provided strong but self-contained action to jumpstart the narrative and set up the bad relationship of the parents, instead of dragging on and on and requiring some kind of giant payoff I hadn’t planned on. I brought back a romance with a woman seeking asylum in the U.S. And gave another character a wedding. I even switched my narrator from one sibling to another. Suddenly the relationships really started to pop.

Maybe most importantly, I thought of cake. I meant the book to partly track a neighborhood “cake lady,” and the way making cakes for every family and neighborhood function allows her to see important moments in people’s lives. I had totally gotten away from that. So I thought of a dessert that would appear in every chapter to mark an occasion happening there, even briefly. That was great for keeping Mom in the picture and making scenes discrete in time.

Then I typed up a plot outline with a couple sentences about each chapter, including the cake image and the time of year that goes with it. Room to play around, but I could write straight from it without any new plot ideas if I had to.

I feel 500% better about where this is going. Next week I start moving around what I have into the new plot and writing the new pieces. The narrator switch will require editing, but not so much that it’ll be a problem. I think this is going to work. Right now I’m going to go get a cooking magazine so I can finish my novel collage/treasure map that I’ve been cutting stuff for.

Backstory Backups

One real chapter and two mushballs slowly taking shape. I’ll git ’em. One page at a time.
I’m having a problem introducing characters. On one hand, I can’t introduce backstory on 10-15 characters in the first chapter, because then no action will happen. On the other, I’m finding myself writing badly when a new character enters, like:

Our cousin Bob came through the doorway. Oh crap, you don’t know who Bob is, you don’t care about him. Uh. Uh. Bob was an elephant hunter. Bob was 42 and a Lysol addict. Bob was tall. Once he bumped his head on a door. Yada Yada WAY TOO MUCH BACKSTORY ABOUT BOB.

Bob finished coming through the doorway. God that took forever.

Bob sat down next to me, tall-ly. “Got any Lysol?” SEE SEE I HAD TO TELL YOU THAT, NOW YOU GET IT.

So, yeah, that’s not very good reading. I think the answer is to drop a clue as to their existence before their entrance, then dial back the exposition and fill it in as actual action happens. And substitute backstory with action, too.

I don’t actually know what I’m doing, folks, I’ve never written a story longer than 6,000 words, and now I’m going for over ten times that. You’re watching me fake my way through it. Whee.