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.

19 Responses to Guest Post: Unpack This Scene

  1. J.D. 01/28/2013 at 05:55 #

    Very interesting , Julianne. I’ll take a look at your novel, and good luck with it.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 01/28/2013 at 07:43 #

    It looks like a great novel, doesn't it, J.D.?  Yours will be coming along next!

  3. Bill Marvel 01/28/2013 at 09:45 #

    I had the fun of watching Julie slowly become a novelist, wrestling with material she knew in her bones — growing up Irish Catholic in New York, the curses and blessings of large families, the slow-motion collective trauma we’ve all lived through in the last several decades — and turning it into something utterly new: a work of fiction. I’ve read it in one form or another several times and it still seems fresh and surprising.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 01/28/2013 at 09:48 #

    Bill, thanks for commenting, it was great to hear from the viewpoint of one who watched Julianne get the novel onto the page.  And, can I just say, I myself am intimately familiar with the "curses and blessings of a large family."  Most of the time it's a blessing, a huge one, actually, but every once in awhile the curse part slips in….

  5. Drema Hall Berkheimer 01/28/2013 at 13:07 #

    I counted myself fortunate to be one of Juli’s readers when she was writing The Narrow Gate, the beautiful novel that started out as simply “Rose.” It is a joy to see it, to hold it, to read it in print. Now, Juli, we want something from you. We want another one.

    Drema Hall Berkheimer
    Author of the forthcoming memoir
    and Other Perils of An Appalachian Childhood

  6. Charlotte Dixon 01/28/2013 at 13:20 #

    Juli has a great fan base, apparently and so I'm sure she'll make you guys happy with another novel!

  7. RobinYaklin 01/28/2013 at 18:50 #

    Hi all, I known Juli as a fellow writer for few years now. Bill and Drema, too. We’ve struggled together learning the fiction craft. In my humble opinion, a very different beast from NF. Unpacking a scene is one of the basic learning points. You can create emotion and fluid gorgeous writing and not have a scene. A scene has goals and conflict points and resolution. Unless you have those, you don’t have much. Take her advice and learn scene.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 01/28/2013 at 19:09 #

    Thanks for chiming in, Robin! I agree that learning how to unpack a scene is vital to learning the craft of fiction. Sounds like you guys have a good support system for each other. 

  9. Julianne McCullagh 01/29/2013 at 06:02 #

    Charlotte’s advice sparked more than the words that poured out of me. I had been taught, I think, to be such a tight writer— that’s fine for some things, but not necessarily novel writing.

    I have a handful of words on a page that will, hopefully, turn into novel #2.

    Yes, I have a wonderful support team here in Dallas. The Writers Garret brought us all together.

  10. Amber Hart 01/29/2013 at 06:33 #

    This is going up on my inspiration wall for those days when I get lost as to why I am writing a novel:
    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.

  11. Charlotte Dixon 01/29/2013 at 08:10 #

    I bet we'll be reading about Novel #2 really soon, Julianne!

  12. Charlotte Dixon 01/29/2013 at 08:11 #

    Well said, Amber.  Words to remember and write by.

  13. Amber Hart 01/29/2013 at 11:00 #

    Wish I could take credit but those words belong to Julianne McCullagh.

  14. Charlotte Dixon 01/29/2013 at 11:03 #

    You repeated them.  :-)

  15. Drema Hall Bekheimer 01/29/2013 at 13:32 #

    For prose that reads like poetry, read more of Juli McCullagh’s writings at Simple, elegant,filled with the realities of life, yet tempered with hope and love. Yes, that’s it – these pieces are Juli’s love letters to her readers.


  16. Julianne McCullagh 01/30/2013 at 09:34 #

    Thanks, I hope you enjoy it.

  17. Julianne McCullagh 01/30/2013 at 09:38 #

    Thank you, Amber. I am happy to be a refrigerator post. Some of my favorite inspirations have had a magnet holding them on my fridge display.

  18. Cathy Pendola 02/17/2013 at 09:28 #

    I’ve read Julianne’s novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I could relate to so much of it since I am Irish Catholic myself. Her book was a page turner for me.

  19. Charlotte Dixon 02/17/2013 at 09:39 #

    So glad to hear that Cathy. I love page-turners 

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