Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.

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Plot Happens

I know you’re scared, but there’s really nothing to fear. Plot happens every day. You’re living plot right now, albeit probably not as epically as you’d wish. You make plans, a goal, or a to-do list for the day; something happens to screw it up; you react emotionally; then you come up with a new or revised plan.

That’s plot. Over and over again. With each new conflict making it seemingly harder for you to accomplish your goal.

With each new conflict creating tension and raising the stakes because now you’re losing precious time to get through your list.

With each new conflict forcing you to find alternative and creative ways to make things go according to your plan.

The secrets of plot revealed.

And so for the next several days or weeks, you’ll be figuring out what your character’s goal is, throwing a wrench (or screwdriver) at it, showing us how the character reacts, then showing us how your character revises his old goal or comes up with a new way to reach it. Repeat this several times and by the end of your story, your main character will have grown as a person because, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Here’s another analogy: Plot is like planning a vacation.

You probably have some idea of where you want to go and some idea of things you’d like to see and do, but you don’t know how to get there or where you’ll stay until you start figuring out your itinerary. Plot is the writer’s version of an itinerary. And these are a few suggestions of how I came up with my itinerary.

The first thing I did to plot out my story was make a timeline. first timeline

I used bright pink stickys (the top row) to plot out the actual timeline of important events in the Jack the Ripper murders. Beneath that, I used orange stickys to map out the major scenes of my storyline in the corresponding order. I used stickys because I like having the ability to move things around, step back, and see how everything plays out.

Plus, as any teacher knows, writing on a blackboard (or a reasonable facsimile) uses different neural pathways (which is why teachers make more spelling and grammatical errors when writing on one than on paper) and forces your brain to work more “creatively.” And who doesn’t want to be more creative?

From this timeline, I wrote a synopsis of each scene on a half-sheet of paper (some writers use index cards but I’m cheap and used old notebooks) and arranged them in oder on my bed (you may wish to use a table or the floor). Again, I like having the flexibility of moving scenes and sequences around while being able to see how logically the whole story unfolds. This took several hours, but with each new pass at my plot, I came up with new scenes and subplots to fill out the outline.

second timeline

After a generous amount of time working on my scene “cards,” I moved back to my wall timeline with a fresh sheet of paper (I cut sheets of paper stores use to wrap breakables and taped them to my wall). Keeping the original Jack the Ripper stickys up for reference, I plotted my corresponding murders with the orange stickys.

Next, I wrote a brief sentence or two (or three or four) summarizing each scene. I even used different colored markers for each plot and subplot thread as an easy visual guide to make sure I wasn’t leaving any one thread for too long. My color system is basically purple for the main plot, pink for romance (I know), green for family relationship problems, turquoise for suspect scenes, dark blue for journalism themes, orange for scenes that hide clues as to the killer’s identity, and magenta for school conflicts. Yours will depend on what genre you’re writing and what threads you think are most important.

One other outline tool that I use from my studies in screenwriting is a beat sheet. This is basically a numbered list of scenes, each described in only a few sentences. I revised mine two or three times while working on the wall timelines.

The best thing about the beat sheet is that it’s portable. You can bring it to Starbucks and not have people looking at you funny when you spread out a 3-foot long roll of paper with a bunch of colored writing on it. (Although I think I’m going to try it someday just to see how people react.) beat sheet

 

So these first couple of passes at the outline were just to get my scenes down in a somewhat logical order and fill in as many gaps as I could. The wall timeline nor the beat sheet are the final version of my plot. There is more work to be done, and I’ll have more suggestions/tools for you too.

For now, work on writing out your ideas/scenes in whichever format feels comfortable or try different ones. Keep those neural pathways working.

Next time, we’ll go more in depth about plot points, scene structure, and how to fill out your beginning, middle, and end.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Who Knew?

Like many Americans, I don’t know squat about U.S. history despite having been subjected to it year after year after year. I know even less about Abraham Lincoln except that he was the 16th president (I think), he had something to do with ending the Civil War, and he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

I was even more skeptical of how one could possibly pull off a story about a giant, gangly, top hat-wearing lawyer who kills vampires in his spare time. I mean, there’s only one slayer in all the world, and it’s not Van Helsing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a really good movie! Like most action adventure stories, Abe: VH executes the elements of storytelling well. He’s got a backstory (best friend taken into slavery, Mom infected by vampires and killed), he’s got an external goal (revenge), he’s got an internal need (to believe in himself), and he even has a mentor to show him the ropes (Henry Sturges). There’s conflict, twists, and turns, and awesome fight scenes. And I for one am glad they did not turn this movie into some kind of campy slasher film–that would be a disgrace to the seriousness of the slavery and Underground Railroad subplots.

But the thing that pulls this story together is the way in which historical people and facts are woven into the tale. It amazes me how much research must have gone in to writing the novel and screenplay. For instance, Lincoln’s boyhood friend, William Johnson, was real, as was Joshua Speed. I know it came out with horrible reviews, but critics spend their time looking for faults and only focus on them. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe.

So what can we learn from this? No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will inevitably have to do research. And while not all of us are writing historical fiction or some kind of weird hybrid genre, historical (or otherwise) accuracy of details is what lends all stories their credibility. Yes, even fiction needs to be credible, and actually more so than reality.

For those of you who have been following my posts on First Draft in 30 Days, the Karen S. Wiesner method, the next step of the journey is research. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a week looking stuff up, but it should mean that you keep a running list of things you will eventually need to know to make your story credible. Research may span any number of story elements, including character, setting, and plot and, as you start looking for information, you’ll find that you come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for your story and may even find your story takes off in a direction you hadn’t expected. That is the beauty of knowledge; knowledge is power and, in this case, it also inspires creativity.

Throughout your writing process, keep a running tab of information or details you need to research. You may also want to list the chapter or page number at which you will need to include this information. My list is usually kept on any number of scrap papers that I’m working on at the moment and looks like this:

General research list

General research list

 

 

 

 

This is not exhaustive by any means, and it doesn’t even mean that as things progress and I learn more about certain details that all of these items will need to be researched. This general list is just a tool to get you to start thinking about what you don’t know yet.

Another element of research is the interview. In this case, you should write up a list of questions you will need to ask but also include relevant information from your story in case the interviewee needs more specific information. For instance, if you’re interviewing a police officer on procedure or laws, you may need to know all the extenuating circumstances of your story to get the most accurate information (how old the suspect is, what kind of weapon was involved, if any, if the suspect has prior charges, etc.).

Interview Questions

Interview Questions

At this stage in the writing process, though, don’t worry about doing all your research at once. Many writers get so caught up in the research process that they lose their original vision, or worse, they lose their interest in writing altogether.

For now, keep a general list until you finish your preliminary outline (and keep adding to it throughout the process) then you will have a better idea of what you actually need to spend your time trying to figure out. You may also want to keep a list of specific questions that will need to be answered to inform your characters, setting, or plots. And remember, not everything you find out about a specific topic will be used directly in your story but it will all help your story grow organically. Again, this is just about figuring out what you don’t know yet but may need to.

Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub

East End Pub

North Yorkshire moors 

Dorm room windows

Dorm room windows

Architecture

Architecture

Quaint village street

Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room

School Dining Room

Village alley

Village alley

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Whitechapel 1888

Whitechapel 1888

Drive to campus

Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style

Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!

 

Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch

L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff

The hard stuff

L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory

L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.