Using Robyn’s writing lessons and guidance from the deep scenes book, I revised the manuscript several times during the spring of 2020. I reviewed every scene. What were the protagonist’s goals, and how was the antagonist trying to thwart those goals? What kind of scene was it? An escape scene? Lay of the land scene? Transition scene? And so on…
This kind of book writing wasn’t the most glamorous, but I felt at home checking boxes on my to-do-list. I checked that the Cornerstone story moved forward by having a character reveal a new piece of information or take an action that advanced the plot. Did the action produce an emotion in the character and lead to a decision? Did the chapter read like a mini-story, rising to a climax and a cliff-hanger that invited the reader to continue reading?
I sprinkled backstory and removed or lessened information dumps. I thought through each emotion of each character, ensuring it was real and true for that character. I thought through each dialogue tag, checking for authenticity and soundness for the scene. Most importantly, I checked that I was showing rather than telling the story.
Developing this writing skill took practice. My first Cornerstone draft was 80/20 telling to showing. By my last draft, I had reversed the ratio. Most of us, even the gifted storytellers tell a story. But when people read a story, they want to be in the story, moving along on the journey with each character. The most tell-tale sign a writer is telling a story rather than showing it is to name an emotion. For example, King Richard in Cornerstone is angry. A way to show this is by writing,
“The corner of his mouth drew a little backward, exposing his teeth, and the muscular tension formed a distinct furrow on his cheek and produced a strong wrinkle under one eye.”
Showing how characters react in a scene takes time and much thought, but the work is worth it for the reader. I’ve become more efficient at showing emotion in scenes by updating a spreadsheet with different emotions described in various ways. For example, throughout the day, if I think of a good analogy, metaphor, or personification, I type a note in my phone, then transfer it to my spreadsheet. Though showing is the most important skill for a writer to learn when writing a novel, arguably the second most important skill is to learn the art of pacing.
Robyn told me the difference between an amateur and a professional novelist is how well the writer masters the art of pacing. Pacing a story correctly seems simple. However, I rewrote many Cornerstone drafts until I thought I mastered the pacing writing lesson. Did I vary the structure of sentences and paragraphs, did I zoom the camera in or out when necessary, and did I use the appropriate verbs, adverbs, and adjectives when either slowing down or speeding up a scene? Mastering this art takes time—many hours of writing, then editing, writing, then editing, and so on. Most critically, mastering the art of pacing requires the writer to intimately know the story and its characters. I’ve probably read the manuscript at least a hundred times so it was easy to lose the forest from the trees. I needed to take breaks, sometimes weeks a time, as the Cornerstone book simmered at low heat at the back of my mind.
It’s hard for me to multi-task so I only focused on one topic at a time when editing. When I was specifically editing pacing, I imagined the book as a roller coaster. The slow rise to leveling off, the fast drop, then zooming on the tracks, a corkscrew here and there with multiple drops, and finally another slow rise and stabilization before the story rose to a climax.
After analyzing the book’s pacing, I finished my edit by reviewing the writing lesson on the use of thematic language. The main theme of the Cornerstone series is the first sentence asked in the prologue: “love or freedom?” Like a painting with many layers, this theme appears in multiple forms and will continue to show its layers as the series progresses. Writing a novel is like painting a canvas, or composing a symphony, or modeling a machine in software with thousands of connected parts. There are many layers, and as Robyn repeatedly told me during many writing lessons, “You must have a beat to your writing.”
The idea for Cornerstone first appeared during a flight from Brazil to the United States in 2015, but it didn’t take shape until 2017. I wanted to write a prodigal son story and a story that illustrated the deleterious effects on society from corrupt, large, and powerful institutions. Because of this, I chose the late twelfth-century as the book’s setting. These elements remained in the book, but after Jameela and Rachel came to life, the book pivoted. Add in my mental health journey, and the book pivoted more. Now Cornerstone became primarily a story about the transformation of Jeremiah, Jameela, and William.