Charting Your Characters for NaNoWriMo

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So, what do you really need to know in order to write a good character? There’s the basics –

  1. Height
  2. Build
  3. Hair color
  4. Eye color
  5. Temperament
  6. Job
  7. Hobbies
  8. Skills

Then there’s getting down to the nitty gritty.  I just picked up Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran and I’ve been enjoying the entries on the various authors tremendously. (I admit I’ve been skipping around instead of reading straight through.) Terry McMillan has an interesting way of creating characters. Years ago she picked up a job application for McDonald’s and fills it out for every single character in her books.  She goes further though. “I create a five-page profile for every one of my characters so I know everything about them: what size shoes they wear, if their hair is dyed, if they bounce checks, have allergies, what they hate about themselves, what they wish they could change, if they pay their bills on time.”

Now, maybe this isn’t completely necessary but I can sure see the benefit.  I’ve always been something of a “method” writer, getting inside the character and writing from the inside out.  I need to know whether my character would really do the things that I’m writing for them.  Will it ring true for the reader?  I figure if I know my character inside out, I can put them in a situation and I will know what they will do, how they think and how they will react.

I found a great job application out of Alaska at http://www.jobs.state.ak.us/forms/genapp.pdf  It asks the generic questions but in a way that gives you a broad idea of your character and lets you infer some interesting things.  For instance, if someone is willing, or even prefers, to work the graveyard shift – why?  Hmmm. Who would your character contact for references?  How about in an emergency?

4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone by Barbara Ann Kipfer offers some very specific questions that you could ask your character.  I think it’s a great book for a writer to have, but I don’t think I could possibly answer each one for all of my characters.  She does break it down into some good categories.  Some of these questions are hers and some are mine, but more are hers than mine.

Childhood & School

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Where did you go to school?
  3. What is your saddest memory? (And a bow to Humans of New York)
  4. Do you have any siblings?  Did you get along with them?
  5. In what organizations and extracurricular activities did you participate?
  6. Did you have any serious accidents or illnesses as a child?

Family & Friends

  1. Did you have any pets as a child?
  2. As a child, were you closer to your mother or your father?
  3. What is your ancestry and ethnic background?
  4. What was your parents’ relationship like?
  5. Did you like school?
  6. Did you have a favorite teacher or subject?

Fun & Sport

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. Do you participate in any organized activity?
  3. What do you do for fun?
  4. What do you think is funny?
  5. What sports do you like to watch?
  6. Do you dance?

Habits

  1. Do you get up on the weekend or sleep in?
  2. Where do you eat dinner?
  3. Is your house neat and/or clean, or is it messy and/or dirty?
  4. What are your vices?
  5. Are you careful or careless with money?
  6. Which pant leg do you put on first?

Love & Sex

  1. Do you have a significant other?
  2. Do you believe in love at first sight?
  3. Do you believe in marriage?
  4. What sexual position do you favor?
  5. Who was your first love?
  6. Tell me about your first kiss?

Outlook

  1. Are you a pessimist, an optimist or a realist?
  2. Do you like or dislike change?
  3. What are five things you are grateful for?
  4. What worries you the most?
  5. Do you have goals for your future?
  6. What is “success” to you?

Politics

  1. What political party, if any, do you align yourself with?
  2. Are you pro-choice or pro-life?  Why?
  3. Do you believe in the death penalty?
  4. Do you think we should have national healthcare?
  5. What do you think of marriage equality?
  6. What does the term “feminism” mean to you?

Spirituality

  1. Were you brought up in a religious tradition?
  2. Do you identify with a particular religion now?
  3. Do you believe in ghosts?
  4. What does “evil” mean?
  5. Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
  6. Do you believe in destiny or choice?

Work

  1. What was your first real job?
  2. What do you do for a living?
  3. Do you like what you do?
  4. Do you think you’re a hard worker or lazy?  What would your boss say?
  5. If you had to change careers, what would you do?
  6. How many hours do you work each week?

How do you build your characters?

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Making a Start on my Writing, Over and Over Again

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The other day I was telling one of my co-worker’s, who is also a writer, about my intention to edit the next fifty pages of Biomalware (just in case the fellowship contest wants to see them) then go back and do a complete re-write and re-imagining of the book, to really get the tone I want.

She looked at me with something akin to admiration, “You’re really doing it.”

“Well, not really,” I replied, shamefaced. I’d been procrastinating terribly, as far as I was concerned. “I haven’t done anything with it in a couple weeks.”

“But you are,” she insisted. “You’re thinking about it and that’s an important part of it.”

 She’s right. I am doing it. Stating my intention and thinking about it is a step in the process.

I also have a huge tendency to discount what I’ve accomplished because I’m not accomplishing it as fast as I’d like. (I suspect I’m not the only one, huh?) I intended to do a complete edit on those fifty pages today. Instead I did about seven pages. I made a start though, and that’s important.

So, maybe it’ll take me a week to get that edit done, but I will get it done. Then I’ll start the re-write, hopefully by the beginning of April and complete it within the next three months. Maybe it will take longer. I’ll take as long as I have to. I simply won’t stop until I accomplish it.

Perseverance. It’s the difference between the published and unpublished.

I’ll keep writing, no matter what, because I love to write. I’ll keep growing in my writing because I love to learn. I’ll keep submitting because I love to share my stories. I’ve already found people that enjoyed my stories and I’ll find more. Hopefully some day I’ll be writing for a living.

I always recall Joseph Campbells advice to follow your bliss. If you do, the money will come. If it doesn’t, you’ve still had a damned good time in the process and life is about the journey, not the destination.

Exploring and Reflecting Through Writing

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Last week I met with my writer’s group and they gave me some food for thought about my writing.

Because there were so few of us and we didn’t have much new to share, I read a few things I’d written in the past year and put on my Yahoo! Voices page.  One member told me that she thought, “people like your writing because you’re so honest.”  Another member mentioned that he felt I hold back in reading to the group.  He’s right, it’s much harder to read things for people face to face than what I post under the slight anonymity of a pen name.  Both comments drew me to think about the honesty in my writing.

Honest is something I certainly try to be in life.  In my writing it has to do with seeking the truth of the situation, whether it’s fiction or memoir.  I think that the more honest I am about events and my feelings, the more someone else can connect with it and use the experience.  I’ve always wanted to help people with my writing, if only to feel less alone.  I think the connection that writing and reading can bring, dispelling the illusion of our distance and loneliness, could be one of my most important contributions.  It’s all about the ripples.

I write for others, but even more so, I write for myself.  I explore ideas and situations, exorcise demons.  I particularly love end of the year writing – getting some last licks in before the year changes over.  There’s something reflective and magical about it.  It’s full of anticipation and potential energy.  We may reflect on the past year, think about where we want to go and chart a course.

I’ve definitely been thinking about the novel I want to finish.  I see it going through a lot of changes, giving it layers and depth.  I’m anticipating the day when I feel it’s ready to strike out on it’s own, to present it to people for the reading.

I’m excited about writing in the coming year.  Are you?

Camp NaNoWriMo and getting started –

Well, I wasn’t sure I was ready to start this novel.  I wrote the short story, Biomalware, months ago and my writer’s group proclaimed it “the one.”  They felt I should turn it into a novel.  I thought about it for a while and decided they were right so I started mulling over how to do that.  I got some character sheets, setting sheets and scene sheets from The Writer’s Craft web site and… they sat there.  I made up my mind to start writing the novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in June, and I got about six hundred words, give or take.  That was as far as I got.  Don’t ask me why.

Then, recently, I had a dream.  In my dream, I was sitting at a computer at work, doing something.  I realized that if I just started writing the novel, it would come and it would sell.  So, in my dream, I took out a tissue and blew my nose.  Then I opened a blank document and wrote, “She took out a tissue and blew her nose.”  (Thankfully, what I’m writing is not a chronicle of my life right now.) 

When I woke up, I decided to start writing with Camp NaNoWriMo in August.  “This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.” (Douglas Adams)  I prepared a little bit but on August 1st, I opened up a blank document, brought over the first three sentences of what I had previously written and just started. 

It was grueling at first.  I didn’t feel inspired.  I worried the whole venture would have to go this way, slogging my way through bit by bit.  But then I reminded myself about what Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, had said about how the novel takes on a life of it’s own.  So I stuck with it hoping that, after a week, the novel would take off and things would get a bit easier. 

I made it through day one, then day two.  I tried to keep going over what I’d written so far and the story as I knew it so my mind would work on it when I had nothing else to think about.  And a funny thing happened at the end of day two.  I had more story to tell.  I couldn’t go to sleep until I scribbled a few paragraphs down.  Then I woke up this morning and my brain had more to say about it.  Something is happening here, folks.  I’m beginning to live in my story, and it feels wonderful.

(By the way, synchronicity is a strange thing.  I just went to the NaNoWriMo web site to look for Chris Baty’s name because I couldn’t remember it and found there was a post Nano pep talk from Audrey Niffenegger that I had never read last year.  Since I just started listening to Her Fearful Symmetry in the car last night, I read it.  Quite nice.  But I won’t tell you what it said because you should have signed up for NaNoWriMo last year so you could get the pep talk and read it for yourself!)

Anyway, looking forward to lunch so I can write some more.  I’m hoping that one of these days my characters are going to surprise me and do something really interesting.  If not, I’ll just have to add it in the re-write.

Wasted week, or was it?

You know you’re the mom of a two year old when your idea of a spa day is 10 extra minutes in the bathroom all by yourself.

But I digress.  I’ve been off work for the past week and home with the munchkin but I’ve gotten very little done in the writing arena.  Sunday we went to a graduation party and the munchkin fell asleep just as we got there so I sat in the car with her while she napped and managed to plot out the first quarter to third of Biomalware.  Do you think I actually wrote any of that this week?  Nope.  I did put together some stories on Monday, toward a collection, but I want to write a few more before putting it out there.

So, was it a wasted week?  Of course not!  I did get those two things done, but more than that I got some rest, relaxation and well filling in.  I’ve read a couple short urban fantasy stories from the Strange Brew anthology, quite a bit of Susan Wittig Albert’s The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree mystery, and I’ve caught up on some blog reading.  I’ve gotten a couple naps in (albeit mostly contorted on a love seat next to the munchkin but one was a lovely half hour all to myself in a darkened bedroom with a summer breeze coming through the window.)  We got to see a funny and fluffy movie based on Janet Evanovich’s mysteries, called One for the Money.  I got my car cleaned out today and made a plan this week for organizing the house and getting the yard back in shape.  (Planning is so much easier than doing, dontcha think?  But it’s a necessary step.)  No real travel this vacation but soon, and there’s certainly been plenty of good beverages, though mostly chilled. 

So, no, it hasn’t been a wasted week.  I’m feeling very relaxed these days and better able to deal with the challenges of life in general.  Certainly more ready to put some of my plans into action.  What more could you ask from a vacation?

 

Humbled & Developing a Novel Idea

It’s been a heady week for me, watching my page view hits rack up on Yahoo! Voices.  The story and poem are still featured so I’m waiting to see where that run ends, but I had a humbling moment yesterday as well.  I finally actually looked at the poem since I put it up and realized, to my chagrin, that I had transposed two stanzas so that the rhyme scheme was not proper for a villanelle.  In a villanelle, the last line of each stanza is supposed to alternate.  The way it was displayed, stanzas 3 and 4 ended with the same line.  Ah, well. I consoled myself with the delusion that only a poet would notice.  (I certainly didn’t.)  I fixed it and had a bit of a laugh at my own expense.

Moving right along, I’m getting ready for CampNaNoWriMo.  Are you?  I won’t pretend that I actually intend to write 50,000 words in June, but I’m using it as a catalyst to get my new novel off the ground.  Before June 1st, I’ll continue to read Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and make notes for the novel as I find inspiration.  This weekend I hope to fill out the character, setting and plot sheets I found online.

The novel I’m going to write is based on my own short story, Biomalware.  (Hubris, anyone?), I’ll try to give you an idea of how I’m using Writing the Breakout Novel to help me develop this short story into a novel.

Biomalware is about a young, widowed father who takes his two year old daughter to the doctor’s office because every time she eats, she’s in pain.  She only eats when the hunger overcomes her fear of the pain.  The doctor writes the father a prescription that should help but the nurse slips the father a note telling him that there’s someone who can help more.  He goes out to the place on the note and the farmer there tells him it’s GMO crops contaminating all our food that has made it indigestible for his daughter.

My writer’s group strongly urged me to turn this into a novel.  I decided to take their advice but obviously the story needs a lot of developing to sustain a novel.  Writing the Breakout Novel is helping me marshal my thoughts to do that.  I’ll give some examples of advice from the book and how it has inspired my thinking.

Maass says that it is important to try to capture the times of your story.  In my case, that would be current day or 2012.  What things catch my attention in the news?  There’s the polarization of people over issues, the different political parties, dissenting factions over gay rights, anti abortion activism is on the rise, and corporate rights seem to trump the individual all too often these days.  I’m not sure what will work into my story, perhaps all of them over the course of it, but the last one seems particularly appropriate as I recall a certain corporation taking farmers to court because their seeds were contaminated by the corporation’s GMO seeds through cross pollination.

Maass suggests you should try to “shatter your protagonist with a tragedy or give him an unexpected gift.”  That got me thinking. I could have the kid die, though I don’t know if I could stand to do that.  I could definitely flashback to how he lost his wife.  I could have him get the medicine and have the kid get worse, perhaps from malnutrition because, though the medicine is masking the symptoms, the food is still not being absorbed by her body properly.  I like the latter two ideas best.

“I would like to suggest that there are two character qualities that leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other: Forgiveness and self-sacrifice,” Maass says.  My character seems to have the self-sacrifice thing nailed down.  He’s a single, widowed, father who is going to go to extremes to help his own child, and other children like her.  Now, where can I bring forgiveness into it?  The doctor?  The father may be angry with him for pushing the medicine but the doctor wants to help and has probably simply accepted the party line fed to him (though he has also ignored the warnings of the nurse as new age mumbo jumbo.)  He has failed his patient to some degree, but not out of malice.  There is room for forgiveness here.

I’m about halfway through the book and I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it before the 1st, but perhaps.  It’s exciting and intimidating to contemplate starting a novel again.  I just hope I can go the distance.

Writing Plan and Goals for the New Year

I’ve been thinking about what I want to accomplish with my writing in the coming year.  To put it succinctly, I want to sell a book as well as several articles and stories.  I started listing out some steps that I hope will help me get there.  It looks small on paper but I know the time commitment, along with my job and home life, is huge.  I’m sure I could break it down into smaller steps but I think I’ll leave it a little more fluid.  I’ll have to figure out when I’m actually going to do these things.  I’m thinking I’ll have to find a place to work on my lunch hour and commit to some time at the end each day, but here it is for now.

  1. Read Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and use ideas in writing and editing.
  2. Edit middle grade mystery novel.
  3. Write more and edit mainstream novel.
  4. Show both books to writer’s group for feedback.
  5. Choose agents and editors to submit to.
  6. Keep track of expenses. (Treat writing as a business.)
  7. Write an essay monthly and submit it to the Yahoo Contributor Network.
  8. Write an entry weekly for Melora Johnson’s Muse.
  9. Write an entry weekly for Story Musing.
  10. Write short stories as ideas come up.
  11. Read, read, read
  12. Consider paying for a professional copy editor to give me feedback
  13. Keep submitting.

Writing through the holidays

While I wouldn’t say writing is the furthest thing from my mind right now, it is definitely on the back burner.  Other creative pursuits have taken its place in the week leading up to Christmas.  I have been busily crocheting gifts for family and doing a little cooking for friends.  I do still have two essays that I want to get out soon, one I’m hoping to post before the end of the weekend, but I won’t beat myself up if it doesn’t happen until closer to the new year.  Then it will be time to do a little journaling, take stock of what I’ve done this past year and think about what I want to accomplish in the year to come.  I’d like to have a real plan of the steps I will take to make those goals happen.  I think specificity in planning can be key in making things happen instead of just hoping that they will.  I’ll let you know next week what my goals are and how I’ll get there.  (Though, of course, I will remain flexible because the best laid plans of mice and men… you know the rest.  *wink*)