Guest Post: Unpack This Scene

Cover with inset

I'm pleased to introduce to you novelist Julianne McCullagh, who announces the publication of her book, The Narrow Gate, and tells a bit of the story behind it in this guest post.

Unpack This Scene

by Julianne McCullagh

About a year ago, Charlotte Rains Dixon offered a free 15-minute coaching session. Free I could afford. I sent her a number of pages from the, then, first chapter of my WIP. Three words revived me and my desire to finish my novel: “Unpack this scene.” These three words pushed a button in me that released the gate that was holding in 10,000 words. Maybe it was permission to delve deeper, maybe an assignment I wanted to ace. Since I am a slow writer, this was something else, and– and, and, this is important–I could actually use most of these words and/or scenes that rushed that gate!

I struggled with the beast that is novel writing. My experience with writing, aside from term papers way back when, was column writing and the long essay. I had secretly hoped, in whispers, for years that I could become–ta ta ta da!!–one of them. "Them," of course, being novel writers. One of "them" that I had read so many of over the years, hungrily devouring book after book all my life, starting with fairy tales and big color books of forests and castles and princes and princesses, sitting on the cool linoleum floor of the basement in my parents home, big books opened on my small lap.

We had books in my family.

Bookcase after bookcase filled with words. There were whole sections of the greats, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, that my grandfather collected. There was a giant, I mean giant, old and yellowed dictionary that had its own pedestal and I would read word after word of it until I was called away. This writing thing had to be wonderful. My grandfather, who died before I was born, worked as an editor, a writer and a printer. He didn't go to college but he educated himself on the greats of literature. Some part of me felt it was a sacred duty to love words and story, a family tradition, passed down like a scepter, or, better yet, a lantern, the lantern of knowledge and thinking.

I discovered that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write fiction. After all, it’s just something I made up, right? Well, yeah. But, fiction is not just something a writer makes up. To be good fiction, lasting fiction, hopefully, the writing must shed light or reflection on the truths of life, the real human emotions and consequences and graces and love and struggle that the reader can believe and relate to, root for, cry with, rejoice over, and all those other prepositions we are not supposed to end sentences with.

But a novel is a beast. There are story arcs that must intersect with story arcs that makes something beautiful, that makes a reader want to keep turning pages to see what happens next, how the protagonist or antagonist deals and acts upon the events of her life.

It took me at least three years to write my novel. My novel had a humble beginning: a prompt thrown out in a writing class sparked a few words that stayed with me and led me on a journey. Three years of struggling and twisting and turning, sure. But three years where I sat amazed when words and scenes flew out of my fingertips onto the screen that I didn't know were waiting to be born.

Those moments of grace, yes, grace that as far as I know, are granted only after years of apprenticeship, years of reading and reading and reading through the night, staying up way past your bedtime to finish a scene, a chapter, a whole book. Years of study of what makes literature. Years of writing and re-writing and always learning the craft. Learning to hear like a writer, to see like a writer, to feel the words round and wonderful or sharp and bitter or oh so ordinary, but in the right hands those everyday words can be turned to music. And, of course years of being in love with words.

And now I have a book.

What do you think, guys?  Do any of you have experiences similar to Julianne's?  She'd love to hear about them in the comments.  And do check out her novel.

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