Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.
In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.
But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?
Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.
But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.
This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.
Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.
The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black Cat, The Raven, The Sleeper.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
The man in the green speedo
The girl who cried at midnight
The boy who ate glass
The cat whisperer
The woman in the rain
The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.
The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?
For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?
Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.
These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.
While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The Lifeguard, Trick or Treat, Teacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.
I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.
Again, this is a two-part exercise.
First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!
This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:
“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”
And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:
Hall of Mirrors
If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.
Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
Continue as above.
I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:
City of Liars and Thieves
This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.
Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!
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.
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.
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!
I’m contemplating murder. Definitely more than one, but most likely less than three. An almost-three seems a good number.
It’s enough to say, “Hey, there’s a crazy Jack the Ripper killer on the loose. Could I be his next victim?”
Plotting a murder takes a lot of work.
First, you have to figure out who you want to kill. And there has to be a reason why you want this person dead. I mean, senseless killing is just stupid. There are really only so many motives for murder: love, money, power, revenge, and a whole host of offshoots. I’m not adding self-defense to the list because after all it’s hardly premeditated and no one would blame you. And if anyone brings up the Saw movies or I’m a Rob Zombie backwoods psycho-cannibal, I will murder you.
Secondly, it helps to know who is doing the killing. This can over-complicate things. Why stop at one killer? Let’s make a copycat killer. Or better yet, let’s have two killers with two completely different motives that somehow intertwine. But it’s best to keep things simple. Someone has something, tangible or preferably not, that someone else wants. The only logical choice is to kill them. Yes, there must be logic even in murder.
And lastly, there has to be someone who discovers the body, otherwise it would just be pointless and stupid. So word to all those unsolved murder murderers out there–leave a clue for god’s sake! You know you secretly crave fame and attention for taking another person’s life (as long as you don’t get caught). Or do you want to get caught? The only way someone will know how truly great and powerful you are is if someone says, “Damn you, John Smith! You killed my wife!” Or I suppose you might also want forgiveness. Either/or.
Seriously, how awesome would it be if we finally knew without a doubt who Jack the Ripper really was and why s/he killed all those prostitutes? I, for one, want to know what was going on inside his or her head. And I don’t buy into the old “I’m insane from syphilis” theory. It’s so pedestrian. But I suppose our not knowing has forced us to create a real person of sorts. We gave him a name (well, that one letter helped), we psychoanalyzed him, we gave him a top hat and a doctor bag and a flashing Lister blade. Yes, we, the people, created Jack the Ripper.
Why my obsession with Jack the Ripper? Why not, I say? No one can out-murder him. And it just so happens he is the inspiration for the novel I wrote for my MFA thesis, which I am now completely and utterly rewriting to get back to my original vision instead of the transparent autobiography it had become. Of course, my Ripper isn’t a man, doesn’t carry a doctor bad, and doesn’t kill hard-working prostitutes. Lazy ones, perhaps. (I do hate lazy prostitutes.)
There are two categories: General Fiction and YA Fiction. Luckily, I happen to write in the latter category, so I’ve decided to enter.
Unfortunately, after revisiting the novel I wanted to use, I realize it kind of sucks. Oh, I used to think it was all that. In fact, it was the greatest thing I’d ever written and couldn’t possibly ever write anything better. What an idiot.
I had shopped it around, got several rejections, and a handwritten note from one of the editors that said they really liked it but couldn’t use it at the moment. I was even allowed to send the first 100 pages to a literary agent based on my pitch. She told me she didn’t quite connect with the main character as strongly as she needed to.
Now after several years away from it, I can totally understand why. My protagonist is so guarded even with me. There’s nothing warm or endearing about her. Sure, she’s all tough and jaded, the kind of girl you want in a fight, but there’s nothing vulnerable about her.
I had a very sharp conversation with her yesterday (and yes, I was talking out loud). I told her if there’s one person she has to be honest with, it’s me. I can’t tell her story, and it’s a good story, if she doesn’t let me in. I don’t even know who she was before the story started. Oh, of course I know what happened to her (we call that backstory), but I don’t know what she was like. What were her hopes and dreams, who were her friends, how did she act? Believe me, I filled out all the personality/characterization sheets, but I was going on what she was telling me, and it wasn’t the whole truth. I’m not even sure if any of it was the truth or just what I was coming up with because she was not very forthcoming on her own. The main thing I’ve learned is that your protagonist cannot hide from you or the reader. Sure she can hide her true self from the other characters until it’s necessary, but in order to make a connection, she’s got to be real.
Good news: I might have gotten a glimpse of her last night, and I’ll be hounding her the rest of the day on giving me more. Bad news: from what she’s showing me, my whole story is going to change. Well, not the plot things, but definitely how she acts, how she reacts, the relationships she forms with people. I don’t think I can revise the first 3000-5000 words by the time submissions open, which consequently is at midnight. And though I’m a little more than bummed if I don’t get a chance to enter, at least I’ve been made aware of this fatal mistake. (Thanks, K, for that!) Who knows? I might just get accepted on another round of submissions.
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