When I was in college, some older and wiser friends had a great phrase called “Defining the Relationship.” The short form was “DTR.” As in, “Have you had a DTR with that boy yet?” (Um, no, because I know I shouldn’t be dating him and if we have a DTR I will say that out loud and that’s the end of that!!)
I came across this great quote by Ben H. Winters: “Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it.”
This is so true! I have ideas for books all the time. ALL THE TIME. I write them down in notebooks, on receipts, typed into my computer, and one time, scribbled on the cover of a pastry box. When I get time, I flesh out the idea longhand into my art sketchbook. Then I daydream about the book. Daydreaming involves casting actors into the roles, Pinteresting settings and fretting over the villain. I love to hate my villains. It also includes fantasies about how ridiculously entertaining this book will be. (I’m an optimist. Don’t hate.) I fill in all the character worksheets, answer the character motivation questions in Jeff Gerke’s excellent book “Plot Vs. Character,” and sketch an outline. I’m a plotter.
Then, I start writing, and all the lovely ideas become tiresome. The settings don’t look like the brochure. The characters want to stay in and watch a movie instead of go to battle. The villains’ agenda makes more sense to me than the hero’s journey. It’s time for a DTR. Defining the relationship with a whole novel is rewarding because eventually, the novel starts agreeing with you.
Sometimes, all I have to do is go back to my notes. I’ve forgotten a plot point or a character flaw or forgot to have A happen BEFORE B. Other times, I have to change the entire direction of the book. That’s totally fine, I just wish the book had mentioned that up front. But if I keep plugging away, the story starts to come together in a way that is much deeper than a great idea scrawled on the back of a piece of junk mail.
I just had a long DTR with my current novel. 150 pages in, I had to go back and rewrite the first five chapters. Now, I don’t usually edit a first draft until it’s complete, but because such major character changes had to be made before I could move forward, a backwards look was in order. It was messy! I had to be brutally honest about some real things. I mean, I didn’t cry, but the book certainly did. And we’re both the better for it!
It’s tempting to get discouraged about anything we undertake once the bloom is off the rose, the honeymoon is over, the gloves are off, or whatever metaphor you prefer. However, it is in the hard work that the truth is revealed, whether that is about a real relationship or a story being written. Sometimes, those are the same.