The Big What If

Here again are the six novels I’ve been studying in preparation for finishing the first draft of my own work in progress.

  • 1000 White Women: the Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus
  • God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison
  • Neverhome, by Laird Hunt
  • Summer People, by Marge Piercy
  • The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood
  • Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Let’s begin with the first item on a revision guide I recently gleaned from a workshop with Lori DeBoer of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. What’s the story-worthy problem? What gets it all going? I think of this as a version of the BIG WHAT IF.

  • What if May Dodd volunteers to become the wife of a Cheyenne chief so that she can leave the asylum where she has been committed because she was not married to the father of her two children?
  • What if a smart, gorgeous, successful black woman falls in love with a man who deserts her with no explanation?
  • What if a woman disguises herself as a man and joins the Union army during the American Civil War?
  • What if a love triangle breaks apart and the three people involved don’t know what to do with their grief?
  • What if three friends are each victimized by a woman whose funeral they attend, only to find out that she is still alive?
  • What if a genteel young woman marries a much older man only to discover that he is not the brilliant writer she had planned to help with his magnum opus?

Each of these books has a major problem to explore and each story is told from mostly female points of view, more than one in Piercy’s and Atwood’s books. Eliot’s book is omniscient, and being of the Victorian era, includes authorial intrusion and direct address to the reader. I have no difficulty skating over those elements and no intention to revert to that structure. The book is a massive novel of manners, but still worth the effort to read it all the way through.

The shifts among three main characters, one of them male, in Summer People are rapid, but the transitions are clearly labeled with the name of the POV character. I would have preferred the sections to be longer so that I could sink into the story more deeply. Lesson noted. The Robber Bride has a more leisurely pace that develops the trauma inflicted by the “dead” woman on each of her victims. In the other books, a predominantly single POV make for easy reading and a shorter book. Not that ease or brevity are measures of excellence.

So, lessons learned: the need for a good WHAT IF and the effect of POV on the reader and on the length of the novel. My novel Accidental Child has a close first person POV and it’s short, less that 70,000 words. My sequel has three main characters with POV shifts and will be longer. Next week I’ll come back to this list and delve again into the things I’ve learned.

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