Situate Us

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” Abraham Lincoln

“Tell us where we are.” This is the feedback I hear over and over again from my critique group when it’s my turn to discuss my work. “Situate Us.” And finally this week the advice sunk in. Or at least it moved me to take a closer look.

I went back and reviewed what I’d written so far for my new novel. Specifically, I looked at the first paragraph of each chapter. I always seem to create many characters. Don’t ask me why. They appear, and then they become so integral to the story I can’t get rid of them. Or more correctly, they won’t leave me alone.

So first off, I checked to see if I’d named the character in the first paragraph of each new chapter. This is especially important when you have different characters. As a reader starts into a new chapter, he or she needs to know right away whose perspective and version of events they are reading.

I concluded that I named the character pretty consistently in the first sentence of each chapter. However, I found that some of my first sentences started with a he or a she. I only named the character in the second or third sentence. I think overall this is okay, so in some cases, I left the text alone. There will be lots of time for editing.

Next I reread my first paragraphs. 90% of the time I didn’t situate the character. I didn’t comment as to where he or she was or what they were doing. Instead, I started the chapter somewhere in the middle of the story and then three or four or sometimes ten paragraphs later I identified where the character was. I wondered why I did this and how this writing tic of mine could have escaped me.

I like playing with time in my stories, going back and forth from present to past and back again. So that might explain part of it. But I think this habit of not placing the character has more to do with how stories come to me. When I sit down to write, I see an image of the character, I wonder about their history and what brought them to where they are in their lives and then I write the history bit, the back-story before I bother with the present. I must at some level discount the present. Or maybe I’m just trying to find solid ground, the right place to set my foot or rather my pen down.

Perhaps I’m simply trying to understand what has been before.

I don’t know why I do it, but at least I’m aware of it now. I’m sure I’ll do it again and again. As I write this, I realize this is yet another way in which I come to my stories. It’s interesting that I learn something new about myself as a writer every day. Painful, yes, but not a bad thing either.

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