Be Your Character, Part 1

This being November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which we writers try to write 50,000 words of a novel.  We hope it makes some sort of sense when we’re finished with it.  But often we get into the middle and the story just sort of peters out.  Loud are the laments: “My story isn’t going anywhere  and my stupid character is just sitting there not doing anything.”

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One of the main problems writers have is getting to know the characters in the first place.  It’s not good enough to say, “I’ll get to know them as the book progresses.”  We only have 50,000-100,000 words for the entire book.  That’s not very much time to develop a character we don’t know.  Most of the time if all you know about a character is that he has brown hair, amber eyes, a square jaw, a roguish grin, and you think he likes to eat sushi, you’ll be surprised when he crosses to street to eat spicy noodle soup at a leaning shop in the run-down market selling black-spotted bananas and nearly bald tires.  You stop and go, “Where did that come from?  You’re supposed to like sushi.  I planned for you to like sushi.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because you know nothing about me.”

Wonderful.  Now what?

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Become your character.  Put yourself in his skin.  If this sounds more than a little ick, take a deep breath (or two or three if you need it).  There’s a good reason to do this, or I wouldn’t suggest it.  The only way to truly understand your character is to become him.

I asked my daughter, who also writes, what she feels when she becomes one of her characters.  She said it’s uncomfortable – for both her and the character.  This makes sense; everyone has personal space – even our characters – and no one likes being invaded.  The act of becoming a character, of putting on his skin, is a bit akin to being possessed.  Who we are in our normal everyday lives has to step back and go along for the ride with the character.  At this point we become documentarian or scribe and just write what he does, sees, touches, tastes, hears, and feels.

So when your character goes across the street to eat spicy noodles in a run-down little shop, you understand that one of his favorite childhood memories was visiting Thailand with his father and uncle after his mother died when he was twelve.  He couldn’t sleep one night and went for a walk, where an old woman saw him and fed him spicy noodle soup.  He never told anyone he went there, but he can still feel them slipping down his throat, smooth and delicious, with a burn at the end that left his eyes watering and his nose running.  This is the same shop and the same woman and the soup is just as good – and the old woman wasn’t as old as he thought, she just seemed old to a twelve-year-old boy.  On top of that, he hates raw fish, so he’ll never eat at a sushi place.

Just because you, as the writer, likes sushi, don’t assume your character does.  Only by becoming your character can you understand what he likes and dislikes, and why.  You gain a sense of his tastes, what turns him on, what makes him cry.

Remember, this is not about us.  This is about our character.  We don’t have to agree with his beliefs, morals, or politics.  Those are all our character’s choices.  Their choices are what make them who they are.

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[Image above is original artwork for Eric Brown’s Necropath series]

Eric Brown wrote the fascinating Necropath series set on an exotic spaceport tethered in the Bay of Bengal.  The main character is named Jeff Vaughan, a drug-addicted telepath.  He is deeply flawed and the ultimate hero, though it takes him some time to come to the conclusion he’s alright with being heroic.  The reader travels with him over three novels, getting to see his failures, his triumphs, and all the reasons he feels the way he does.  He rescues and marries a prostitute, the sister of a young girl who was murdered.  His choices are what form him, and eventually transform him.  While I personally would never choose to take drugs, I understood his motives.  I cared that he got himself in hand and moved forward with his life.

In the same way, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a wonderful study in character immersion.  From the very beginning we care about poor little Harry, whose parents have been brutally murdered.  The fact that he’s abused by his relatives only makes us care more.  We want him to escape, and Hogwarts is a wonderful place – until it isn’t.  Ms. Rowling understood Harry and she dragged us into Harry’s character and his world, from which we surfaced reluctantly.

Think about your own favourite authors.  What do you love about their characters and why?

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So how does a writer become the character?  The simple answer is to talk with him.  That will only take you so far.  Ask him if he’ll take you with him, show you what he feels, sees, touches, smells, etc.  Promise him you’ll only write what he shows you.

Like any human relationship, there needs to be a measure of trust established before they will let you that close – or you are willing to get that close.  I have a character in one of my novels that I simply could not get a good handle on.  It seems as if there was a barrier between us and he was just showing me what he wanted me to see, not who he really is.  I finally asked him why and realized he’s desperately terrified of letting anyone get too close.  So he puts on this lovely smile and gives generous hugs, but he’s keeping the real him hidden.  This will take some work, but now I’ve got the glimmer of a way through to him.  The fact that he trusted me enough to let me see his fear is an honour.  I did not know about this facet of his character and it changes everything, opens new paths for the series.

None of this is easy, and many times I have to stop in the middle of the writing and check with my characters, especially if they are reluctant or recalcitrant.  Sometimes it’s a plot hole, or a plot bunny we think would be fun to chase (and which then needs to be unwritten), but usually it’s because I’m assuming my character wants one thing when he really wants/knows/feels something entirely different.  If I’d slow down and just write what my character is doing, seeing, feeling, etc., we’d be good.

Now that I am in my character’s skin, what do I do?  That’s for next time when I discuss how to write from the inside of our character.

I love hearing from my readers.  Which authors do you love for their characters and why?  If you write, how do you become your character?

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Moving Right Along

The last time I blogged, NaNoWriMo was nearly here.  We are now thirteen days in and the writing is going well.  My usual goal is 2000-2500 words a day, so NaNo’s goal of 1667 words a day is easily achieveable.

On a good day.  This is November, so of course, there are distractions, storms, and doctor appointments.  To say nothing of Thanksgiving and the need to do Christmas baking so it can be sent.

I find this takes ruthless planning.  I write from 9 am to 1 pm, go and bake, cook dinner, and come back from 7-10 to get my words in.  Most days I can get them in by 1 pm and have the evenings free, but last night it took me ALL DAY to get in 2566 words.  it was like pulling teeth.  I knew what would happen, was giggling my way through the scene, but what was in my head would not come out on the screen.  It was definitely like giving birth: long, slow, and painful.

I liked what I got, though, so I’m happy.

For many writers, NaNoWriMo feels more intense than our normal writing, probably because we who do it have set goals, some like one of my friends, are really high — she wants to write 100K words this month!  Wow, you go, girl.  I’m enjoying watching her word count mount each day.  Another friend successfully finished her 50,000 words in eight days!  I am content to do my 50,000 words by the time Thanksgiving gets here, because after that, I have company which is more important than writing.  People always are.

Another reason for the intensity is some of us challenge ourselves to see how many words we’re capable of in a month.  This is good, I think. I look at NaNo as a marathon.  Some people will naturally run from the front of the pack, others in the middle, pacing themselves, and some will fall off the back.  The fact that they entered and ran is good, no matter if they finish or not.

I’m a pacer.  I hit 22,750 words last night.  I’m ahead of the curve by a few hundred words.  That’s really all I want.  I don’t want to feel too stressed.  I need to stay within myself for health and stress reasons, so I’m writing as I normally do: 2000 words every day.  Takes all the stress out.  The novel I’m writing will be done before I hit the 50K word mark.  I’m writing the last “half” for NaNo.  If I get done early, I’ll write a series of short stories to add to the word count.

I’m enjoying NaNo this year.  As usual, my characters surprise me.  I had one throw a twist into the storyline I hadn’t seen coming.  Hmm.  Not what I thought he was.  I was left wondering if there was another twist coming, and there is.  I can see it glimmering out at the end.  I’m still not sure how it will all fall out, but when it does it will make logical sense to the characters (and I hope, to the readers, too).  I don’t plot a great deal in advance, but keep the action that has taken place in mind so I don’t drop something in the future.  This novel has a lot of moving parts in a lot of different places.  I keep notes of where my characters are at different parts of the novel and then pick them up when I need them.  I need them all together at the end, so I’m having to plot this a bit more carefully but still give them room to move.

We have a huge storm blowing through right now, high winds, lots of rain and 27′ beach surf.  Dangerous conditions outside, but just perfect for staying in with a cup of tea or coffee and writing my next 2000 words.  I’ll see you all again soon.

NaNoWriMo Already!

Eek!  It’s NaNoWriMo time again!  National Novel Writing Month.  Often known as NaNo by writers.

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year.  I’ve been struggling with pneumonia for the last seven weeks.  I’m recovering after two rounds of antibiotics and at this point it is still a question of whether it will come back when I finish this last round.  I’m exhausted most of the time and feel more like lying about on the couch than sitting my bum in the chair and writing.

BUT it is NaNoWriMo, one of the months I am forced to be most productive.  The goal is to write 50,000 words in November.  That’s 1667 words a day, every day in November.  It’s not impossible; my goal is usually 2000-2500 words a day.  I normally average 2000, but there are those days that getting more than 500 words from my brain to the computer is difficult.

Why the powers-that-be at NaNo decided on November, with Thanksgiving right at the end, I’m not sure.  But there we are, writing frantically and suddenly along comes Turkey day.  Try writing through a food coma!  Some of us are okay, and already ahead of the curve, or have completed the 50K and are just cruising along.  Most, like me, are struggling to finish up.  And we only have four days left to get our last words in!  Panic, panic!

What takes the pressure off is that whether or not you actually finish the 50K words and “win”, you are ahead because you have written.  It really is about writing, getting words into your story.  They might not be the very best words you’ve ever written, but that’s what the rewriting process is for.  The goal of NaNo is to write: 30,000 40,000, 50,000 or 100,000 words.  As my son says, “It’s all good.”  I have done two NaNos before this.  I wrote 45,000 words the first year and 67,000 the second year.  I’ve skipped a couple of years because of circumstances, but cheered on my friends who did it.

And now, I have been talked into NaNoWriMo for another year.  I both love it and hate it.  I love the writing, hate the pressure, love the word goal, dread the days my brain goes mush and not even three pots of coffee help.  The discipline of sitting and writing every day is good, even when I’d rather go for a long walk on the beach and watch the seals play in the waves.

One of the best ways to complete Nano is to have goals of your own, and to be well prepared.  I am not. My goals this week are to get organized.  I need a plan if I’m to do this well and not spin about in circles. I’ve had an experimental novel going for a number of years, a pirate spoof called Avast.  It is at the halfway point and I moved too many times in the last three years to  get it finished.  A month ago, a boy of twelve asked to read it.  He devoured it in two days  He is now waiting for my next chapters and bugging me to get the book done.  So for Johnson, I am going to work on what has turned into a Middle Grade Adventure novel.  It will take about another 50,000 words to finish up the story.  I am anticipating about ten more chapters.

I’ll let you all know how I do and any lessons I learn from NaNoWriMo this year.  I always learn something — about myself, my characters, and writing.  This is never a bad thing.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo and what do you do to stay disciplined in your writing?  I’d love to hear from you.  Drop me a line.  For anyone doing NaNo, I wish you the best of luck.

The Essential Tools of a Writer

This should be an easy topic on the surface.  Most writer can reel off a list of things they need when they write: pens, notepads, computer.  But when I stopped to think about it, it wasn’t quite so easy.

Each writer is different in the way they approach their writing, so each writer’s essential tools are different.  Some need only a couch, a computer, and a cup of tea.  Some work best in a coffee shop, in a library, or on the beach.  Others need a space to call their own, where no one interferes.  Some like writing outdoors, and some can’t think if there’s anyone else about.

I have certain things I require to write effectively.  Here’s a quick list of what I find essential:

  • Computer
  • Printer
  • Pens
  • Notebooks
  • Binders
  • Dividers
  • Filing Cabinet
  • Files
  • Binder Clips
  • A Desk
  • Bookcase
  • Books on Writing
  • Books to Read
  • Music
  • Coffee

You can laugh at the last one, but coffee is an essential ingredient in my life  A lot of writers I know have a favourite beverage they can’t live without when they write: tea, hot chocolate, water, a soda.  For me, it’s coffee.

One essential not listed above is space.  To be most effective, I need a room of my own.  I’ve got friends who say, “Nice, if you can get it.”  That is true.  I started out writing at the kitchen table, then had a desk in the corner of the living room for about eight years when the kids were young.  It wasn’t till we moved to our own house On Whidbey Island that I got my own office – and even then, I had to share it with my husband for a while.  Once I had the room to myself, I painted, brought in a squashy couch, and some bookcases, which I filled with books, making my haven more library than living space.

We moved to Hawaii in 2013 and I found myself working in small spaces, one of them with my desk facing a wall in a sort of hall just outside our bedroom; behind me was the dining room table, and beyond that a view down to the ocean.  My notebooks, binders and a few writing books were set on a board on boxes in a cramped alcove.  Still, I managed to finish the first draft of two novels.  I had the basics: desk, computer, printer, file drawers, files, and notebooks.  It wasn’t ideal, but I made it work.

Our house on Whidbey Island sold so we left Hawaii, packed up thirty plus years of life into storage, and finding ourselves footloose, decided to take a trip to Australia.  My essential writing tools for that trip were a computer and a thumb drive for back up.  We took a cruise across and I wrote on the tiny desk in our cabin.  My goal had been to finish the novel, but I spent more time watching the ocean go by. During my time in Australia, I was privileged to be invited to write with two great writer friends, Paula Beavan and Marisol Dunham.  Thanks, ladies for the use of your table and counter.

Today, I have an office set up in one of the bedrooms of our house on the Oregon Coast.  It’s not a bit space and I share it with the Wi-Fi and Internet equipment, and a box of spices for my spice business.  It has two throw rugs, a dining chair and a 7′ table as my desk.  I have the requisite filing cabinet, coloured file folders, binders and a set of bookshelves in the closet behind me.  The printer sits on one end of the table and at the moment I have files and papers from three projects in fairly organized groups around the computer.

A printer is the other essential for me.  I read best on paper.  A waste?  Maybe in years gone by when people didn’t recycle, but now we recycle all our paper (and glass, plastic, aluminum, tin, and anything else they will take; but that’s an entirely different blog!)  I have been known to keep my previous drafts to look through later, but when a manuscript is 750 pages, I quickly run out of space.  Besides, with programs like Scrivener, I can save my different drafts.

These are my essential office tools.  What are yours?  I’d love to hear from you.  Leave me a message and tell me about your essential writing tools.

How to Write With All Five Senses

A really good way to use the five senses in our descriptive passages. Tell me what you think. Write me a descriptive sentence of two using one or two of your five senses…

A Writer's Path

Smell

Description With All Five Senses

This might be a little grade school for some of you. Or you might think it’s a little grade school. Frankly, I think we could all stand to be reminded. So there you go.

When you are describing something, it looks a certain way. Yes indeedy. We get that. We got it three paragraphs ago. We got the visual flavor of this city through your description of Corinthian columns, crenellated parapets, vast marble blocks that take twelve oxen a week to tow anywhere useful.

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You Might Be a Writer If…

Just have to reblog one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read on being a writer. Thank you, Kristen Lamb.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

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A lot of “stuff” has been going on in my life lately. Hard stuff. Heavy stuff. The kind of stuff that just makes me want to write massacre scenes….except I am so brain dead I had to google how to spell “massacre.”

Masicker? Missucker?

WHAT AM I DOING???? *breaks down sobbing*

I am supposed to be an adult an expert okay, maybe functionally literate. Fine, I give up! I have nothing left to saaaaayyyyyy. I am all out of woooords *builds pillow fort*.

I figured it’s time for a bit of levity. Heck, I need a good laugh. How about you guys?

We writers are different *eye twitches* for sure, but the world would be SO boring without us. Am I the only person who watches Discovery ID and critiques the killers?

You are putting the body THERE? Do you just WANT to go to prison? Why did you STAB…

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Taking Notes

When I started writing seriously back in the 80s, I used loose-leafed sheets and a pencil (lots of them over the period of writing a complete novel).  I wanted to be able to erase my mistakes and get that first draft properly down before typing it on the typewriter.  I started with an old Olivetti or something like it.  No Selectric typewriter for me.  Then we got our first computer, one with the old changeable 5.25″ floppy disks.  I still kept everything on paper.  And a good thing, too; I got up one morning to find that 8 of the last 11 pages were missing — the middle 8 pages!  No big deal, I just rewrote from my notes.

In the beginning I did it all long hand, with scribbled phrases on the back side of the sheet.  Since then I have bought exercise books, journals, diaries, spiral bound notebooks both large and small, hard-bound or soft, bound notebooks with tear-sheets, and a myriad other configurations.  I have a love of all things notebook.  There is something about opening a fresh book that is stunning with possibilities.

I do try to make each notebook about one novel, but have just realized that didn’t happen with a couple of them; I was on the plane to and from Hawaii when an idea struck, so just used whatever was to hand.  I also have notebook I use for writing prompts and practices.  Still only one subject, but stories are usually short and range from fantasy to romance to science fiction, to speculative.  On the backs of pages, I often have a shopping list, phone numbers, notes for another story, a quote I think I’ll remember for a story in a different book, Christmas lists, a recipe, etc.

Yesterday I took some time to read a book I’ve been wanting to start for some time.  It is called Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  Of special interest to Christie fans and writers, it details how she wrote her stories, using her notes in 73 notebooks.  It’s fascinating reading, and I find I’m not the only one who writes random stuff on the back of the pages.  However, many of her book notes are scattered about throughout as many as six notebooks at a time and she will often have notes for as many as five or six books in one notebook.  She just started taking notes on whatever book came most easily to hand and on whatever page she opened to.  Amazing, and it shows the sort of mind she had: prolific, with ideas tumbling over one another, river-like.

These days my notebooks are sparser than they used to be.  I make notes on chapter ideas, something about the characters, maybe a reminder that X has grey eyes not green, and H is married to N and not T so that I can go back and make H married to the right person all the way through.  (Oh yes, here’s that salad recipe I wanted two weeks ago!  Well, I sort of made up a new one and wrote it down in another notebook.  Both were good).  If I’m stuck on a character and need to interview him, I often scribble down a series of interview questions and sometimes the answers.  Once in a while I get a good bit of the chapter down just to makes sure I’m going in the right direction — or I want to explore a different direction.

Do any of you use notebooks? And if so, please describe them. What is your note-taking writing style?