One of the best things about being a writer is that we can always learn and become better storytellers. Today, I happened upon two insights regarding character motivation (wants vs needs, and choices) that were worded in such a way that I immediately spotted what was wrong with my work-in-progress. What I read wasn’t new to me, but information doesn’t always sink in the first (or second or fifth) time I come across it. Today, things clicked. And that makes this writer very, very happy.
Art can’t be taught;
passion can’t be taught;
discipline can’t be taught;
but craft can be taught.
And writing is both an art and a craft.
~ Elizabeth George
Last weekend I spent time with my nephew who is also a writer. We talked books and the writing process. We also talked a bunch about Marilynne Robinson, and the next morning I woke with her on my mind. I grabbed my notebook from 2003 when I spent three weeks in Iowa City absorbing her genius, and reread the notes I took.
Today, one of MR’s fourteen-year-old pearls of wisdom helped me out:
You should be every character’s advocate. You are God to that character. Typically, in one way or another, people are trying to make the best case for themselves. People are whole creatures. Villains have history behind them.
Aunt Isabel is no longer a one-note character. Marilynne Robinson for the assist!
I’m writing the final scenes of my middle-grade novel.
I know where the story goes and how it ends.
However, that doesn’t make the process any less exhausting.
I’ve got lots of characters coming together,
and they’re all toting individual motivations and plot lines.
Choreographing these scenes feels a bit like juggling chainsaws and kittens.
The good news is that it’s only a first draft.
I need to remember that these scenes do not need to be perfect.
Today is the day, I thought. Today, the photo of me with the Stabby bus will make its blog debut. (The image was captured our first day in Uppsala. Zebu spotted the bus coming up the street, and I quickly handed off my phone and posed next to it when it stopped. Those who know me well know that I quite frequently “feel stabby,” which is why I was thrilled when Zebu captured the original Stabby bus image for me.)
Today is one of those “I’m feeling stabby” days. So I went back and found the photo.
Huh? That woman does NOT look as if she’s feeling stabby. She’s smiling, happy, and, aside from the claw-like curve to her right hand**, looks pretty damned relaxed. Not at all stabby.
I almost gave up on today’s stabby theme. And then it hit me: this photo is perfect for today’s post. Why? Because the reason for my stabby feelings is that I’m struggling with two characters’ friendship in the opening pages of my new project. I’m struggling to smooth out their interactions so as to establish their relationship and character arcs, and suddenly, it feels as if the first 60 pages are a steaming pile of mixed messages.
So what better photographic representation of mixed messaging than this photo of the smiling me next to the Stabby bus?
HA! I’m suddenly feeling slightly less stabby.
** me simulating holding a pointy object in preparation of stabby motions.
I have a long-time habit of coming late to television shows. Recently, I began watching both BREAKING BAD and DOWNTON ABBEY. I can’t imagine two shows more wildly different yet I find them both quite compelling (and sometimes imagine Carson the butler cooking meth in the servants’ quarters).
Me enjoying a violent contemporary program and a feel-good period piece might indicate a split personality, but the truth is, I have about as much admiration and respect for the British aristocracy as meth cookers/dealers; neither would make my birthday party list. However, I’ve grown fond of these characters (although, In the case of DOWNTON ABBEY, I’m much more invested in the servants than the pampered, with the exception of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess who is a rude delight).
I jumped into DOWNTON ABBEY in season three, and have had no real difficulty easing into the characters’ lives and their story lines. While I wouldn’t want to spend time with any of the aristocracy, it’s not a huge stretch for me to (mostly) root for them or, at least, not wish them any ill will. BREAKING BAD is a whole other premise. I’m watching it from the start (am halfway through season two), and am so glad I went back to the beginning.
The writers do a phenomenal job making me care about those characters. I could easily loathe Walter and Jesse if I hadn’t gotten glimpses of their lives before they broke out the beakers and masks. But not only do I not loathe them, I root for them. As in, last night I caught myself being glad for them as I watched sale after street sale of their crystal meth. Whoa.
At the same time, Walt’s character is becoming less and less sympathetic (and I’m so glad Skyler is giving him a taste of his own attitude!), but there’s no way I’ll stop watching. And from the rave reviews, no one else stopped, either. DOWNTON ABBEY, on the other hand, has pissed off plenty of viewers by killing off the second major character of the season and may well slip in the ratings.
What does it all mean? Hell if I know. I’m just filtering everything through my writerly perspective while pondering how to apply these same can’t-turn-it-off principles to my own storytelling.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about my panic over
characters revealing themselves.
Wise writer-friends weighed in on how they enjoy this aspect
of novel-writing because it means (among other things) that
my characters are still speaking to me,
and that I’m getting to know them just as I get to know people in real life,
and that I should bask in those little revelations because they add an element of surprise to the process.
Such wise friends.
I’m now hip to (and content with) the character revelation thing,
but am now wondering how you all feel about plot points revealing themselves.
What I’m struggling with is that I have basic plot points figured out,
but I have to keep tweaking and tweaking to fine-tune them.
Do you all have this issue with plotting?
(I’m not even sure if I’m making sense here so will try one last description):
It’s as if I know the plot points but it turns out that’s not enough to write this draft;
I have to keep rethinking/reworking the plot points to get where the story wants/needs to go.
I was making such headway but in the last couple days have gotten bogged down
in figuring out what I thought was already figured out!
Anyone have insights?
I’m trying not to panic about all this,
but as I work on BIRD BRAIN,
I keep going back and adding bits and pieces of characterization.
Stuff I just recently discovered about the characters.
I’ve been working on this project off and on
(with lots of OFF), since April of 2008.
You’d think by now I’d know the characters inside and out.
What’s it like for the rest of you?
Do you continue to get glimmers of understanding as you write?
Or do you figure out all the basic, most important stuff beforehand?
Or, like me, have you ever thought you knew all the basic, most important stuff
only to discover you did not really know those characters?
As I said, trying not to panic . . .
After my initial meeting with my mentor, Claudia Mills,
I had to make a decision about my main character.
I needed to decide how "mean and rotten" I wanted her to be.
Claudia pointed out that as long as the reader
has a sense of the character’s pain,
they will accept less-than-loving attitudes and behaviors.
Some of the actions I brainstormed for my main character
were really and truly rotten.
Those actions would undoubtedly ramp up the story’s conflict
and create huge potential for dramatic pay-off.
I thought and thought about this girl and what she was about.
Then I read a middle-grade novel that’s received lots of buzz and an award.
The main character is mean.
And even though the author did reveal the main character’s pain,
the emotional scale felt way out of balance.
That character’s pain wasn’t enough for me
and I had no sympathy for her.
In fact, I was a wee bit pissed off when I finished that book.
Obviously, there are many, many people who love it.
I’m just one reader.
But that book helped me decide:
I do not want CLOSE TO HOME told in the voice of a mean and rotten character.
Will my main character be perfect?
Will she say and do some bad things?
My job is to to do right by this character,
and I’m going to work hard to find the perfect balance for the emotional scale.
The mighty whiteboard leads me out of the plotting/revision jungle yet again!
All hail the whiteboard!
Agnes by Tony Cochran
Suddenly my plotting abilities don’t seem so weak. And I’m starting to think the pony-tailed Trout with her sharp editorial eye is my Ideal Reader. I’ll keep her in mind today as I work on revisions, and just might find a way to include a legume-related accident or two.
I’ve been adrift in my WIP but this morning felt a renewed sense of purpose about the book. I realized it was time for the dry erase board so I could visually map out the story. I gathered all my materials in one place and started talking aloud because that’s how I process best. I decided to start by mapping out the big ending scene because while I’ve had a general idea about it from day one, I needed more details so that I could understand characters’ motivations as I continue writing earlier scenes.
I uncapped a stinky marker and started listing the things I already knew about the big ending scene. It wasn’t a whole lot so I referred to my legal pad to check for other details I’d missed.
I’d completely forgotten about this. On September 20 I wrote three pages of notes, the majority of which concern the big ending scene. I wrote details out the wazoo but somehow, somehow, I’d managed to forget them.
Has this ever happened to you? Please tell me I’m not the only one. I mean, I know I’ve killed some brain cells over the years and that I’ve been under some Wildebeest-induced stress these past weeks but right now I’m feeling embarrassed and somewhat alarmed.
The work was fine today but not so much in the way I’d anticipated. I ended up adding fewer than my 400-word goal but that’s okay for two reasons: One, my count was more than 400 yesterday and combined with today’s word count I’m still on schedule for my final goal. Two, I figured out all sorts of stuff about the story and wrote three pages of notes.
I finally know the story with G’s mother! She’s not dead! She’s alive, she’s alive!
I understand why Mr. E is such a prickly personality when he’s around T.
I realized which character is the real rat bastard of the story.
Best of all, I found some needed inspiration while reading I’M A LEBOWSKI, YOU’RE A LEBOWSKI: LIFE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, AND WHAT HAVE YOU (a fan book written for those of us who can’t get enough of the Coen brothers’ movie). It’s not rocket science but it was the perfect time for this particular slap upside my head (plus it came from an interview with the real-life Dude who inspired the character and movie). So what is the Dude’s explanation for the cult success of THE BIG LEBOWSKI? He points out that in all great comedy the situation gets progressively worse for the character(s).
Apparently Joel Coen writes a scene and makes it as difficult as he possibly can for the character. Then Ethan Coen rewrites it, making it worse. And then Joel makes it worse again.
Thanks. That had not occurred to me, Dude.
Not much progress since I last posted but I did go back and polish what I had thus far. So while it doesn’t look like much, what I’ve got is solid.
Plus last night I finally figured out something my brain has been struggling to sort out for the past month or so. Something to do with a secondary character and the main plot line. Anyway, I knew there was a reason why my narrator kept referring to that other character but wasn’t sure what it was. Now I know. At least for today I know.
Isn’t it a weird sensation when you can literally feel your brain tripping on something over and over, and then there’s a shift and suddenly the answer is just waiting for you to pluck it off the shelf and plunk it down on the page?!
I told myself I wouldn’t start on the second draft of my middle-grade WIP until I sorted out the plot issues. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Pulling up my list of THINGS I KNOW and adding to it. A little bit here, a little bit there.
Well, I’m sick of it.
I don’t want to sketch out plot issues anymore.
I don’t feel like I’m moving forward on this project.
I just want to write the @$*#-ing book.
Among other THINGS I DO NOT KNOW, I still haven’t figured out the story of one character’s mother. Is she alive? Dead? Missing in action? Wandering the streets suffering amnesia?
Do I have to know this before I start the second draft?
I’m trying hard to stick to my THINGS I KNOW list as I figure out story/plot issues before starting my second draft.
Yesterday I added a bunch of details to the list, including one that raised the stakes.
Yesterday I felt pretty good about the process.
Today I’m reading through pages of notes I wrote during the first draft.
I’m back to those feelings of panic and overwhelm.
Which ideas are usable?
What should I ignore?
I read those notes and lose all focus as my brain scampers off on some A.D.D.-inspired field trip. Maybe this should happen. Maybe that. How about such and such?
Someone needs to give my brain a good talking to.
I just watched a great blue heron wading in the run-off pond near my house. That’s what I want to be in my next life. (Um, a heron, not a run-off pond).
The Bolder Boulder photographers just sent the link for me to check out my race day photos. Yikes. The photo of me running in the stadium toward the finish line shows one very tired woman. Zippy had five photos taken of him and I’m in three of them, running behind him like some oxygen-deprived stalker.
The official race results are now available and I discovered my time was nine seconds faster than I thought. Woo Hoo! But even more exciting, out of the 448 44-year-old women in the race, I had the 26th fastest time. (Technically I’m 27th but one of the women is listed as “Steve” which Zippy insists is a mistake. I pointed out there was a female character named Ralph on “Green Acres” but he insists that fact is not germane to the discussion). Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by my race position and it took the sting out of getting a much slower time than I’d hoped for.
I’m trying to sort out plot issues for my middle-grade WIP but started feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities. I was writing ideas, many of which were “maybe X does this because such-and-such…”, and I started to feel panicked by not having anything to hold onto. So I started a THINGS I KNOW list. I’m writing one-liners about story details I know for sure, and it’s helping me figure out what else I know. Now I don’t feel like I’m drowning!
Wildebeest had his last day of 7th grade on Wednesday and Zebu finishes 5th grade today. We’re all quite happy putting this school year behind us. We plan to celebrate tonight with some dinner and bowling.
This morning I went to the nearby tech school and bought a bunch of perennials from the student greenhouse which means I need to get outside and figure out where to put them in my various flower beds. I bought two forget-me-not plants because they remind me of Alaska. Now if only I could get a moose to come hang out in my yard………
Wishing you all a wonderful weekend.