Friday, September 7, 2018

Getting Up on Your Leg

As those who’ve read any of my bios and/or followed this blog know, I’m a dancer. Not a career dancer, by any means, but an enthusiastic amateur who took classical ballet classes for twenty-five years and still practices in her loft office every single day. My first novel even featured a ballerina, although it took me so long to master the craft of writing fiction that the first novel I tackled saw its release only twenty years later as Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—novels four and five in order of appearance.

I don’t publicize these two novels much, because I’ve long since moved on to focusing on historical fiction. But in terms of both subject matter and the length of time it took me to polish them, they have something to offer beginning writers: the concept of “getting up on your leg.”

Now, in ballet—and probably in other forms of dance—“getting up on your leg” is a phrase that almost everyone uses and no one bothers to explain. You hear it often: “you need to get up on your leg,” “I wasn’t up on my leg,” and so on. To a beginner it’s baffling: how can a person dance if she’s sitting down? Aren’t you up on your leg just by virtue of standing?

Well, no. Because if you stop and parse it out, being “up on one’s leg” means to be in alignment, which in dance requires you to have your shoulders in line with your hips, knees, ankles, and heels. If that alignment’s not true—or in the case of an arabesque, not balanced—you can’t raise one leg while supporting yourself on the other, especially if you’re also trying to stand en pointe, where your entire body weight is positioned over a rounded rectangle of approximately two inches by three.

All very well, you may be thinking, but what on earth does this have to do with writing fiction? Here’s the connection: if, as a dancer, you’re not “up on your leg,” the solution has nothing to do with your leg. Almost always, the imbalance comes from not tightening your abdominal and lengthening your back muscles enough. (In ballet, it’s almost impossible to tighten your abdominals too much.)

And that’s where the similarity to writing comes in. If you send drafts to people, especially publishing house editors and literary agents, and what you get back is that your story’s “too quiet” or “didn’t grab me right off” or “I didn’t love it” or something else that on the surface seems vague, what you just heard is the equivalent of “you weren’t up on your leg.”

Dancers "Up on Their Legs"

The solution isn’t, as a general rule, to bring in more action or kill someone on the first page or turn your hero or heroine into the sweetest soul on the planet, rescuing kittens before breakfast and donating to charitable causes each night after dinner—although any of those things can be useful in a broader context. Instead what you need to do, almost inevitably, is sit down and flesh out your characters. Make them complex; make them human; use the setting, plot, and dialogue to show their emotions and the unique ways they approach a situation or a problem. Every single thing that happens in the novel should reveal some new facet of the characters and their world.

That process takes time—not necessarily twenty years but time—so don’t rush it. Revise often, pondering where you can tighten this phrase or that description to convey the characters through what they do and say, their interior monologue. As the narrator, try to stay out of the way and portray their emotions in action and in their own words, so you don’t have to speak for them.

Of course, when they’re talking, aloud or to themselves, they may say, “I’m so mad I could spit,” or “That hurts me,” or whatever: don’t we all? But if you talk for them, especially in generic ways—she felt sad when she saw the injured puppy, he liked balloons because they reminded him of happy childhood days with his father, and so on—you pull readers out of the characters’ heads and therefore out of the story. Keep the characters focused on what’s going on around them; use the details to show us what makes each of them distinct; have each of them use language in his or her own way.

That’s the way to “get up on your leg.” From there, the dancing is easy.

Image: Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1873), public domain via the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.

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