Not on the Page: Especially when you only get one
“Where is the resolution to the scene?”
“How did this help me understand the characters better? How did their actions move the scene forward?”
“No buts. Space is at a premium. What’s on the page needs to do the work.”
The conversation above is one I’ve had many times while revising manuscripts. It seems easy in many respects. Why wouldn’t what is on the page be ‘doing the work’? The answer? Because we assume it is, but don’t notice the gaps we’ve required the reader to fill. But it doesn’t just affect authors.
Recently I was given the task of simply looking up the locations of several multicultural booklists in my public library. I was supposed to note if the library had the book and where to find it. As I searched for title upon title, I felt more and more uneasy. By the end of the third list, I was downright perturbed. Why?
“Because space is at a premium and what’s on the page needs to do the work. Especially if you are the ‘guide’.”
“Okay, so the example books, like a scene, are not just snapshots of one action, but need to reach out to other books on the list and guide the reader in future selections just like the actions and reactions of characters in a scene.”
As I compared a scene checklist provided by my writing instructor, she would be proud to see the connections I made between the book list and her reasons as to how important what is on the page becomes. In fact our conversation could sound something like this.
1) “Something concrete changes in a scene, so that you the writer (and we the readers) can clearly see how the scene will change what comes after it. If you can take out a scene and nothing much will be different without it, it’s not doing its work.”
So after the fourth book about the civil rights movement on a list of ten. . . “This means that the list needs to be an intersection of identities. An effective list will minimize repetition of time periods, famous individuals, regions of the world, types of books, etc.”
2) “In a scene characters introduced are clear, vivid, and have a purpose to the larger story. Make sure that characters are engaged in purposeful action that has relevance to what they’re concerned about in their larger story. Maybe there is a thematic connection. Hit a good balance of subtle and revealing.”
When so many books had popular main characters, animals, no less that did not need promotion on a multicultural list because they are mainstream. . . When so many books were not grounded in a context only that book described. . . “Think of your book as a character. A character that is distinct from the others, that has his or her own role to play. Make sure the book you select is the best book. It’s the book of all the books that you would want to recommend to someone else and you know three reasons why.
3) The handout continues, “Make sure your scene follows a small arc of action that has a beginning, middle and end.”
So if the books are not recently published. . . if the books are showing the same events and players as always, the ones we are comfortable with and with whom we no longer feel internal conflict. . . “Human interactions have arcs. The books on the list should represent different stages of the struggle and different types of problem solving. Each book should do this individually as well as part of the group on the list.”
4) Then my instructor can see the class shift in their seats and chew their nails. Everything was wrong! No. “None of this means you should not try for unexpected shifts and surprises! You don’t want to be so predictable that the reader sees it all coming. But it’s not bad to get comfortable writing a scene that hits your marks and maybe is a little predictable at first—then figure out how to complicate it. That just means you get comfortable with the form and then push the ways you experiment with it.
This translates to a list of ten in the following way. . . “Don’t pick the same books as always, but pick some recognizable books, themes, individuals so that the reader will relate what they know in a wider experience without being overwhelmed.”
While I haven't been revising scenes long, I have been given the opportunity to review book lists many times. An example of my work is as follows:
Since it is only a couple of titles, I have several different ways I have been considering grouping any books I recommend. My assumption is that you are organizing the larger list from recommendations. After looking at the current list, I have considered recommending 3-4 books in the following ways. I would love your thoughts.
1) A representation of cultures across continents as currently done on the list but with the emphasis in representation being multicultural versus international (internal human borders vs. political ones)
2) A representation of viewpoints around a region and/or its conflict. For example: I could do something in the middle east around world conflict and assumptions across cultures including books like "It Ain't So awful Falafel", "A bottle in the Gaza Sea" and "Sunrise over Fallujah".
3) A recommendation type list of newly published books that one would read for the same reason as a classic. For example, I saw that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was in one of the lists but I know that is on most high school lists so we might not need to recommend it. However, I could recommend a group of books connecting to high school reading like "If you think To Kill a Mockingbird is an important book to share, you could read. . ." and then give a grouping on social justice or how one can be an advocate or stand up for what they believe in.
4) A recommendation that encourages the reader to expand their sphere of influence, meaning that I include a mix books of all levels: picture books, illustrated fiction, biography, YA and middle grade.
Let me know what you think. There are so many ways to go! Months have gone by since I gave the above recommendation and I still believe that.