Anyone who reads this newsletter knows what an evangelist I am for thinking before you write. This is not to say that I am a fan of detailed, complex, rigid outlines that lull you into thinking you can know every nuance of a massive complex creation before you create it – I am not. But I am a huge fan of intentionality and knowing your characters and knowing your point and being aware of your audience, and I am constantly pushing writers – including myself – to bring more of all of this kind of thinking into the writing process as early as humanly possible. It makes an enormous difference to have a target at which you are aiming, even if you end up somewhere slightly to the right or left, or above or below, the bullseye.
That being said, the truth is that you can’t know everything before you write. You can know some things, and critically important things, but the heart and soul of the book? I believe that the only way to get there is by writing.
I have experience this reality myself multiple times. When I was writing my novel, The Only True Genius in the Family, I knew what it was about in a ballpark sort of way, and that was enough to guide me towards the end. But it wasn’t until I literally wrote the last scene that I really got it in my bones. (Well, actually, I didn’t get it all. I had a brilliant editor who had to hit me over the head with a 2x4 in order for me to see it. I had planted the seeds of the story and watered them and made sure they got sun and made sure there were no snails or deer to eat them, but they didn’t really bloom until she said, “LOOK WHAT YOU WROTE, JENNIE.” I remember I laughed out loud. It was so obvious. It was right there….)
I have coached writers through this dawning of awareness dozens and dozens of times. Most recently, it happened with a writer who after a year of working on a novel with me finally realized what it was really about. We had been talking about the point and the topic and the deep story and the theme all that time but she just hadn’t FELT it. She didn’t OWN it.
Not long before that, it happened with a writer who finished her manuscript and suddenly couldn’t wait to go back to Page 1 to strengthen her point, because she finally really GOT it.
It’s truly like a lightbulb going off, like a lightning strike. It feels like an electric jolt. Like a deep, soul-level recognition of what was there in your head all along – and it is both a thrill and a relief.
The question then becomes – what do you DO with that knowledge about what your story is really about? Odds are good that point that you have a complete or nearly complete manuscript. So what do you physically DO?
The answer that I use in my own work and in my coaching is something I call The Golden Thread.
Imagine that your manuscript is a tapestry. It has a pattern carefully woven into place. The golden thread is your newfound awareness of what your story is really about.
If you weave the golden thread throughout your tapestry, it’s going to sparkle and shine. It’s going to be the thing that draw’s the viewer’s eye, and takes your tapestry from good to great, or from great to extraordinary. It’s the thing thing that gives it meaning.
Here’s how it works:
1.) You have to anchor the golden thread to the very start of your book – often in the very first sentence, or paragraph, or page. It needs to be there, shining and bright, so that the reader can track it as they go. If this means re-writing your opening paragraph, or page, or even the entire chapter – fine. Do it. That kind of edit is what we call serving the story (instead of your ego) and it’s what all good writers eventually learn how to do. When people talk about “killing your darlings,” that’s what they mean: let go of what isn’t working even if you love how it looks or sounds.
2.) Imagine now taking that golden thread and making stitches across the work. There will be moments when the reader will see a flash of it, and moments when it is not visible at all, but it always there, vibrating in its golden thread way. You will do this all the way through the entire work, sometimes letting the thread shine through several times on a page, other times not for entire chapters.
3.) How do you know when to show the thread and when to send it beneath the surface of the story? Do a revision where the only thing you do is look for places to show The Golden Thread. Imagine that you are the reader. Really put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not you (check out my How to Edit document to see how this is done) and look for places where they might feel cheated. Look for places where you were stingy, where you were holding back (information, emotion, the truth, yourself) and then don’t be stingy: let the gold shine through. You might only be adding a word here and there, a phrase or a sentence or a whole paragraph, but if put in the right places, it will be more than enough.
4.) If you can’t find enough places for the thread to shine through, add them. Add scenes, arguments, chapters – anything you need to make room for The Golden Thread to shine. Think of the whole book as a frame or a showcase for The Golden Thread. You want to set it off in the best light. Change whatever you need to change to make sure you are doing that.
5.) When you get to the end, of the book imagine that you are pulling the thread tight and anchoring it down again. This is your resolution – the point at which the reader really feels deep down the thing you want them to feel. This is when they can tell you what the book was about with as much assuredness as you yourself can.