Nell Bight is the main character in my novel Child Bride, but in another life her name was Claire and she was a minor character in the first novel I wrote that has never seen the light of day.
It was in the early 2000’s after I had published two poetry book collections that I decided to embark upon writing a novel. I quickly learned that the work of writing a novel versus poetry, while similar in some ways, in most it was extremely different. First it was simply the longevity in a novel needed to develop each scene and character, that was a departure from poetry or prose. In poetry I’m able to capture a sentiment, an image, or feeling in as few words as possible and yet with enough descriptive language to grab the reader’s attention. Here’s an example:
“always proud”/whispers in motherless ears/gentle as baby’s breath
This brief ten word poem evokes strong emotions about the loss of my mother. Most readers can appreciate the sentiment whether or not they’ve experienced the death of their mother, and can empathize with what I’ve expressed.
As I asked people to read parts of that first novel their feedback centered on my “telling” not “showing” in my writing. This baffled me since “showing” is how I successfully communicate through poetry. But I wrote on with a strong belief that my writing skills could transition from one genre to another if I just kept at it. Over three hundred pages later I wrote “The End” with a sense of tremendous satisfaction for a completed book.
I then set out to use my contacts in the literary world to find a publisher or agent for my “first” debut novel. People were willing to take my calls and agreed to read the manuscript. I waited anxiously for the offers to come in, but you guessed it, that never happened. I did however get something that has proven invaluable — honest (even brutal) feedback and suggestions from professionals in the industry.
One agent gave feedback along these lines – “Telling, telling, telling, typical first time novelist mistake…and oh the grammatical errors!”
Another said – “I did not like the characters, even if you had developed them better.”
But one comment virtually everyone made who gave me feedback was along these lines – “The only thing of interest in the whole manuscript is Mother Claire. I’d like to know more about her.”
The storyline in the manuscript was about Mother Claire’s children who were young adults. She was represented in the novel as the elder person they turn to as they went through turmoil in their lives. I had no intention of making her anything other than a minor character. But based upon the feedback I received from people reading the novel I began to rethink Mother Claire.
Several years later after letting the manuscript ruminate in my file cabinet drawer, a bouquet started to emerge in my mind. I sat at my computer one day and scanned the manuscript for all references to Mother Claire and then read those sections without any focus on the stories that led up to where she is mentioned. Then I saw it. It was as though I was looking at the sketch of an image within an image. This character’s essence came blazing through and I knew I had to write her story.
My debut novel – Child Bride – was born from the failure of my first attempt at writing a novel, and from the strong voice of its minor character, Mother Claire, who became the protagonist Mother Nell. I will always be grateful for the honest criticism people offered of the first manuscript that gave me the ability to hear Nell’s voice and the strength to carryon.