Orchestrating Impact

The Concert, by Theodoor RomboutsGetting Under the Shell:

“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron

If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.

The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.

Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now addingSuit of Armor flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.

So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.

But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.

Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:

“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)

So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.

Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”

Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.

Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.

I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:

“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
…” ~Paul Simon

Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.

But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!

What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?

Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo

33 comments on “Orchestrating Impact

  1. brindle808 says:

    Reblogged this on Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer and commented:
    Stunning post by Vaughn. He’s nailed it – again!


  2. Eileen says:

    Well, this blog couldn’t have been sent at a better time… I just finished your trilogy last night! (crying, BTW). I guess, because I know you, I was trying to predict the ending. That’s the coolest part about having a personal relationship with the author… you can ask him/her why? What were you thinking/feeling when you wrote this scene/chapter/book? There were 100 pages to go and I kept thinking, “How is he going to wrap this up in 100 pages? It can go in so many directions – happy ending (boring); sad ending (predictable); cliff hanger??? You surprised me, rightfully so! I definitely agree that by book three your maturity, and vulnerability shined through!
    Thanks Vaughn, for sharing your passion with me. I’m honored 🙂


    • Wow, that is kismet on the timing. I’m glad you found the ending unpredictable and moving, E! Sounds like we’re going to be having a conversation, and I think it should be over a glass of something nice (or two). 🙂 Keep in mind, regarding this post, books two and three have not gone through as stringent a revision process as book one. So some of the original vulnerability still shows through (as does some of the bloat, I’m sure).

      Thanks so much for reading, my friend, and for your kind praise!


  3. Jo Eberhardt says:

    So beautifully said, as always. I love the analogy of the suit of armour, all shiny and perfect and completely masking the true stuff underneath. I tend to have the opposite problem, and pour so much of myself on to the page I wonder if anyone will find it interesting.

    Will anyone else cry as much as I did when I was writing that scene? Will anyone else giggle manically at the lines that make me laugh even on the eighth, tenth, twentieth read? Will anyone else fall in love? Or be gutted by a friend’s betrayal? Will anyone else even care?


    • Whatever you do, Jo, don’t strip those revealing moments from your ms during revisions. These are the very things that will move us–as Lisa says it’s where the real meaning is. Knowing you, having seen snippets of your work, I believe. And your question: Will anyone else even care?” It points to a fear we all have when we are truly offering ourselves on the page. The very fact that you have these fears bodes so well for you and your work! Hang in there! I’m sailing right behind. 🙂 Thanks for your praise and for sharing here, Jo!


  4. Natalie Hart says:

    Oh yes, that post of Lisa Cron’s inspired some digging deeper to go vulnerable, myself. Fear, being consumed and led by it or acting despite it, is a major theme in my ms., and in my life. So between Lisa’s post two days ago and Robin’s post today, I’m a bit of a puddle. But it does make for a good time to go back through the ms., making sure I’ve drawn deeply enough.


    • I just read Robin’s post. Wow, more kismet. She’s always awesome, but that was so open and honest. (I’m putting a link here, for those who missed it: http://writerunboxed.com/2013/07/12/fear-the-uninvited-guest/ ).

      It’s somehow comforting to know someone like Robin LaFevers goes through this with fear, as well, isn’t? A puddle is a good description–same here. I never dreamed that going though all of this emotional upheaval would be a requirement for this gig. It sounds like you were on the right (armor-free) road to success.

      Thanks, Natalie! Wishing you the best on combing through the ms, and good luck submissions!


  5. ddfalvo says:

    Writing, in of itself, is quite a journey, isn’t it? It’s almost as though our personal growth runs parallel arcs to that of our MCs. What we know so well is what makes the story authentic. No one understands our passion and our fear like the characters we shape on the page, for they are molded from those real life perspectives. It’s hard to leave our darlings open and vulnerable. Loved your suit of armor metaphor; it’s so apropos. You are doing something very real and very brave and I think it will only enhance the amazing trilogy you’ve written.

    I’m terribly attracted to the emotional component, like Jo. I seek “all the feels”. I just need to learn to hone in and keep it simple. I’m so happy that Cathy feels so strongly about the charting and plotting. The heart is a great at inspiring, but has a tendency to get lost without good direction.

    So happy to hear all is going well with the revisions! Can’t wait to read more. 🙂


    • Quite a journey, indeed. It continues to be amazing. I continue to learn more about myself with every twist and turn of my writerly road. Even though I can tell myself I’m doing the right things, it’s still so darn scary. Am I putting too much out there now? Is it leaning to melodrama, overwrought, too abstract, too, too, too… Layers of fear over the layers of fear. I know you know whereof I speak, my friend. Thanks, as always, for your confidence in my and your ongoing support, D! Back at you–can’t wait to read more! 🙂


  6. I’m looking forward to reading your final draft.


  7. Julie Luek says:

    I just wrote a post on the “tortured artist” concept– the ensuing dialogue was fascinating and thought provoking. The end result was a clarification in my thinking that yes, pain feeds our writing– it adds that element of exactly what you were mentioning, vulnerability. Stripping down to that layer, beneath the fine art of orchestrating words, is the tough part and one I still struggle doing. Great post and reminder that the feelings and intent are as vital as the construct and skill of words.


    • Well, that was a beautifully rendered comment, Ms. Julie. 🙂 “… feelings and intent are as vital as the construct and skill of words.” Love that! I’ll have to stop by and check out your “tortured artist” analysis. Sounds really interesting. Thanks for enhancing the conversation here, Julie!


  8. This post is very interesting to me, because in your essays, you come across as authentic, emotional, and truthful. I wouldn’t have suspected you’d be holding back in your fiction. Because of your ability to write emotionally elsewhere, not to mention all the great help from Cathy and others, I think you’ll get there. I’m sure you will.

    At the same time, I can see how certain wonderful skillsets can actually pull writers away from emotionality. Fantasy writers sometimes get lost in worldbuilding. Historical writers in verity. Romance writers in the mechanics of sex, if they have an open-door book. Me? I wrestle with humor and wordplay. I can be pulled into zaniness or wit when it doesn’t serve the story, and when darkness or tears would be more apt. Anyway, carry on, o revisor. 😉


    • I think for me it was a necessary process, to start sort of emotionally bloated, then to strip it back to a suit of armor, now to go in with (hopefully) some acquired deftness as well as a willing vulnerability. And I’ve undeniably been guilty of getting carried away with world-building. Spot on observation, Boss.

      I can see you wrestling with reining in your wit–it’s a part of your character and world-view, and part of what we all love about you. So please don’t do as I did, and go overboard on the reining. I’m quite sure you will find the right balance, too. Thanks for your kind words and your vote of confidence, Jan!


  9. I love the analogy of the suit of armor, Vaughn. The other day, I made a comment on your Pressfield posting about how we writers tell lies hidden by masks of truth, with the consequence of unintended truths coming through. Perhaps it is just me, but I think many of us do this intuitively, something in our genetic make-up as humans. The thing that made us storytellers from the dawn of time. Stories exist to convey truths. As one of the characters in my trilogy says: “My dear, legend always springs from a kernel of truth. The only thing that differs from legend to legend is how large the kernel is.” Unless we put our emotional truths into our work, intentionally or unintentionally, the work is flat, and means nothing to anyone, least of all ourselves.


    • As a fellow fantasy writer with a trilogy, you can understand perhaps better than most, but I had unintentionally stripped book one back to a sort of launching pad (which made it a suit of armor in the process–talk about your mixed metaphors, right? 😛 ). I was afraid that my kernels of truth would get in the way of not just selling it, but I think, deep down, I used to be afraid I would turn away fantasy fans if I got “too mushy.” I’ve been praised for my action sequences, so I wanted to sort of push that element to the fore–at least for book one. I was foolishly thinking that once they were on board, I could then let my freak flag fly in subsequent books. I should’ve known better.

      I suppose the point of the post is to show what I’ve learned. I’ve also learned that I should never worry about what any so-called group of fans might think of my work, not even in revision work I hadn’t ever done it in the drafting stage, but I have been guilty of it since. And as Pressfield says (paraphrasing), catering to any marketplace is the definition of a hack.

      I love your excerpt, Lisa! 🙂 Thanks for sharing it, and for adding your wisdom to the conversation. You are another one I’m so looking forward to reading.


  10. Dee DeTarsio says:

    Crybaby. Just slip out the back, Jack, try a new con, Vaughn,
    Drop off the key, Skolani, and get yourself free.


    • Ah, finally! A Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’ve been waiting all damn day. For a while I thought I was the only living boy in New Bloggia. But after shaking my confidence daily, Cecilia comes through! Thanks for being my humor Bookend for the post, Dee!


  11. Well, you delved into the heart of matter and you used one of the most powerful songs ever written (a Song of the Year, by the way) to do it. Excellent, Vaughn. In my revisions I do the same: strip away, then rebuild. Tapping into your heart and soul will serve you well. It says a lot that you recognize it. It’s painful, of course, but it’s the only way I can write. When my protagonist realized she was losing that which she didn’t know she’d had until that moment, and she was powerless to stop it, I cried. If I’m so detached that I can’t feel the moment my readers never will.


    • Cool, I didn’t know Bridge was song of the year, and during an incredible time for great songs, too. Still deserving. As I said somewhere above, I think this was a necessary process for me. Isn’t it amazing and cathartic when we hit those powerful moments in our writing? You’re right, we have to feel it in order to convey it. Sounds like you’re on the right track as well, Christina. Onward we march, together, right? Thanks for weighing in, and for your kind praise. Have a great weekend!


  12. Nicole L. Bates says:

    Good Luck!!! I know it will turn out amazing. I think you’ve uncovered such an important, and difficult, secret to writing. People always say, “Write what you know.” but I think in your last couple of posts you’ve proven it’s more important to “Write what you feel.” and sometimes this can be really scary. On the recent rewrite of my MS I tried to dig deeper and get to those less comfortable undercurrents, and the project I’m working on now is definitely new territory for me. Thanks for sharing your journey and for being an inspiration!


    • Thanks for the well-wishes, Nicole. And you are so right, it’s not what you ‘know’ but what you ‘feel.’ Such a wise observation! I’m glad to hear you’re willing to forge into new territory. That’s what will keep our work vibrant. I am inspired by you, my friend. Every time I feel like whining about a scene I know should be completely redone or composed from scratch, I remember how you rewrote your ENTIRE novel. You rock! Thanks for your example and your ongoing support. Just holler if you ever need a reader. Thanks for taking the time to read and weigh in on such a gorgeous day, Nicole. Have a great weekend! 🙂


  13. Great post, Vaughn. I haven’t read Lisa’s on WU yet, but I’m headed over there next.
    Funny, how revisions work. And, I love reading about the experiences of others. Your post makes me think back on Donald Maass’ WU The Map and the Trail article about perspective and focus: sometimes we’re working on the macro and sometimes we’re zooming into the details.
    And certainly your post gives me great food for thought as I work on my own novel.


    • Loved that Map and Trail Maass post. But then I like all of his stuff. He’s been a huge help on this rewrite. I’ve been noticing my macro is in pretty good shape (I’m just past the midpoint), so I’m having to zoom in on specifics for each POV character this time around. It’s not difficult knowing how they feel about things (I’ve known them a long time), but it’s easy to get lost in thought or stray from what really matters. I’ve been rewriting the goals, motivations, and conflicts for each scene again before I start each scene (even though I have a chart as well). It helps me get centered on each scene before I start.

      Glad the post got you thinking! Thanks for reminding me of a great post, and how it applies to what I have going on. Hope the weather is as nice on your side of the lake as it is here. Have a wonderful weekend!


  14. I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

    Bravo, Vaughn, for having this insight into your work. That’s huge. Huge! And it sounds like Cathy is indeed a perfect gem. I’m glad you found her.

    As for Bridge Over Troubled Water… Thanks for sharing that stripped-down acoustic version. i’d never heard it — or the backstory behind it. BOTW is one of my favorite songs, and one of the few I feel accomplished at playing on the piano. (Alone! With Kismet as my audience.) It’s a gorgeous piece; I can hardly imagine this world without it existing exactly as it is. And I think you’re right: A deeper dig is more often than not, well worth every bit of grueling, bone-aching effort. I know it’ll be the same for your story, and I will be first in line to buy a copy once it’s published.

    Write on!


    • Wow, I’m impressed, T! I’d happily join Kismet in that audience. 🙂 As many times as I’ve heard BOTW, it still gives me goosebumps. That’s long-lasting power. If you ever see that documentary come up (I think it was on Palladia), I highly recommend it.

      It’s been a long haul, this journey I’m on. Yes, occasionally grueling and requiring bone-aching effort… and patience! But do you know how often I am forced to sit back and recognize how blessed I am? And so much of the blessed part of my journey is due to WU. Cathy came from there, as did my recognition that I needed to dig. If I have any self-recognition and insight into my own work and my process, it’s come from my association with friends/mentors like you, and my involvement with our tribe. Thanks for your encouraging words about it being worth it. I know in my heart that it will be. When it comes to digging deeper, you are an inspiration, my friend.

      Sorry, this is already a long reply, and I know I’ve told you before that WU has changed my life, and how it’s been central to shaping my writing journey into the most meaningful part of my life. I know I’ve told you that I’m grateful and honored by all of the opportunities that you have so generously given me over the years. I know I’ve said I can’t thank you enough, and that I treasure our friendship. But I don’t think those things can be said enough. So I hope you don’t get tired of hearing them. Thanks for making my day, T! Have a wonderful Sunday and week to come!


      • A documentary just on the song? No, I’ve never seen it, but I’d love to at some point.

        Honestly, Vaughn, I know I speak for the WU masses when I say we’re just as lucky to have found you as you say you are to have found us. I can’t imagine WU without your wise, patient, thoughtful presence.

        I’m even gladder that we’ve become friends. Thanks for bonding with me over F Bombs. Really. Those were the most productive effing F Bombs, ever. 😉

        Keep on keeping on, V. I think you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: What you’re doing right now? It IS what separates the writers who are successful from those who are not. I know where you’ll land.


      • Aw, man. Now you’ve gone and made my week, T. Makes me excited to get to work. Now THAT’s a gift. Thank you!!


  15. ” Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done.”
    Oh, yes, that. I struggle with that willingness each time I write, poetry in particular. So damn scary, but when someone understands that quality, or “gets you”- it’s like all the lights going on at the big show. Brilliant.
    I won’t pretend that I know if I go one way- shiny and brittle- or if I’ve created the emotional equivalent of an overcooked mystery casserole-with Follow You Down. As many big steps as I take back, I’m still too close.
    Cathy is amazing. Absolutely.
    Thank you for sharing the wisdom you’ve gained along the way. 🙂


    • The not-knowing is so damn terrifying, isn’t it? And I think it is for everybody. I think it is for good, seasoned veteran writers. If not, perhaps they’re no longer putting themselves out there. And we’re all too close. That’s why we need each other! As Cathy says, “We all write alone, but none of us succeeds alone.”

      I’m so happy that you consider my sharing to be wise, because I’m never thinking that when I hit send on these posts, either. After it’s up, every damn time, I walk away from the computer muttering something like: “No one’s going to get this one. I won’t get any comments this time.” Etc, etc. I’m not sure I’ll ever think otherwise. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. 😉

      Thanks, Tonia!


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