Creating awesome characters

One problem that a lot of beginning writers (and probably a fair amount of experienced writers) run in to is creating characters that aren't just cleverly tweaked copies of themselves. Or not so cleverly tweaked, depending on the circumstances. 

Imagine a world peopled entirely by yourself, only one has an eyepatch, one chews bubblegum all the time, and one speaks in a Southern accent. Scary, huh? Well, that's the world too many people end up in.

The key is to create unique, believable characters that are as different from yourself as your crazy brother is. And how do we do that? Character worksheets, character interviews, character templates...all of these are great tools for discovering motivations, back story, etc. But let's face it, without material, these things are worthless.

I think the best thing a writer can do for their characters is to go out and meet some. Observe people. Set up post in the mall or a park or on a bench downtown and just watch. Yeah, it may seem a little creepy at first, but get over it. Being a fiction writer is a little creepy. We create entire worlds in our heads and spend hundred of hours transcribing them onto paper. We meet people, fall in love, fall in hate, commit murders, have sex, pet dragons, get pregnant, dye our hair, and on and on...all in our imagination. And then we expect people to give a damn about any of it.

I, personally, revel in the slightly creepy. And the slightly more than slightly creepy, too, if we're being honest, here.

Anyway, have a seat, pull out your notebook, and start writing things down.

I think of these things as 'bright spots'. I'll give you a couple examples, straight from my own tiny notebook.

--A wall made of boulders- half as tall as a man, and twice as wide. What's hiding in there? Great big gaps, big enough for a newborn.

--Japanese assassin- sent to the shrine to off a man thought to have buried stolen treasure at the abandoned shrine. Finds something else instead.

--Angry girl behind the wheel of a yellow sports car, driving nowhere, fast.

And on and on it goes. I've got half a dozen of these little books filled up with things I will likely never look at again. The point of them was to internalize that moment, that idea, that character trait. By internalizing it, making it a part of me, I will have that at the ready when it is time to create a new character or story or setting or scene.

Experience is vitally important to a writer. Not necessarily experiencing all sorts of craziness like bungee jumping or riding in a spaceship. Just getting out there and soaking yourself in the bright, amazingness that is mankind, getting to know how people work and think, is crucial. Without that context, everything else is moot.

The benefits of writing in the dark

Last week I wrote a short story. I kind of liked my short story. I let my short story marinate for a bit, before diving into revisions, and something happened while it was sitting in the fridge, waiting for me. Maybe I didn't plug the damn thing in, or maybe the power went out. Well, whatever happened, when I brought my short story out to put under the heat lamp that is the editing process, I discovered that it had gone bad.

Not just 'Woah, that's a little strange'-bad, but 'Oi! If I read this twice in a row I might get word poisoning!'-bad.

My recipe was off. My ingredients were sub par. And I don't believe I gave myself enough time to execute all of the needed steps correctly.

(Can you tell I've been reading cooking blogs the last couple days?)

That realization made me feel pitiful. And pretty stupid. Because really, the ending I had was something out of an unruly eighth graders fantasy workshop notebook. I mean that in the worst of ways, trust me. There was something about spider legs growing out of a doctor, and evil plans made eviler because they were so painful to read about. And a garden in the basement. Someone might be able to make those elements work, but not I.

I took the morning off of writing to talk to my husband about my future in accounting. This is my code phrase for 'Holy crap, something is wrong!' By the time we were done with our little chat, wherein he told me, basically, that it was up to me to make things right with this story, I was feeling better. And by the time he was getting ready to go to work, I was really anxious for him to get going, so that I could sit in front of my laptop and get to work.

And work I did. I took a break for a walk and a lunch, but other than that I have been at work on my new and improved edition of failed short story, exhibit A. The afternoon waned, dusk fell, and night enveloped me. The only lights in my house are from my computer screen. And I have 3500 words in a short story that *already* kicks the other one's trifling ass. 

These kinds of days prove to me just how difficult this whole writing thing is. 


These kinds of days are coming less and less often.

Going to Writer's group...

Last night I attended a meeting of a local writer's group. I've gone a couple times before, but just kind of let it slide to the wayside while writing Struck By Chocolate. I tend not to go if I don't have anything to critique, and I don't want anyone critiquing something I haven't given at least a once over.

It'd be a little like someone going through my underwear drawer before I meet them for lunch. Someone who's not my husband, that it.

(Okay, that sounded a little weird.)

Suffice it to say, it's been a while.

Writer's groups are interesting events, very roller coastery in their energy patters. You come in, sit down in your seat and place your work on your lap like a seat belt. Get ready kids...

A few introductions: Hi, hello, I remember your face but your name escapes me...I've never seen you before in my life...Oh, you again? Goodness...

Then the awkward moment before the first piece is passed around. Who goes first? Fumbling, mumbling, and finally we have a few sheets of paper to peruse, critique, trying to strike a balance between truth and harshness, compliments and sugary sap. And then we plunge into silence.

For the next ten, fifteen, twenty minutes all I hear are the sounds of papers flipping, pens scribbling, and the occasional snicker or heavy sigh. For the author, this time can range from excruciating, to excruciatingly boring.

Mostly I'm just bored.

I can't wait to dig into the thoughts these people have about my work, see what struck them, what rang false, what just. Didn't. Work.

And, following along with my impatient tendencies, I want it all NOW.

But, since this is reality I'm dealing with, I have to wait. And as I'm waiting I read through my manuscript, finding the inevitable errors. I have the urge to say things like "Page three? First paragraph? Yeah, that should say walked on water, not talked to water." Or "His name is Andy, not Candy. Sorry about that."

But I don't. For the most part at least. I just mutter low obscenities and circle sore thumbs just as much as my fellow critiquers.

Then, once everyone has reached the last page, the room erupts in opinions, fast talking, and a good deal of interruption. Everybody has something to say, and since writing is often such a subjective art in terms of minor quibbles, so much of what is said will conflict.

That's just the way it is.

If I were to take every bit of advice to heart, it would make me go utterly batty. Utterly. And there are enough other things to push me toward that end as it is.

All in all the group is great. I do get some very valuable feedback (which helped me whit A Kind Of Death into shape for the WOtF contest), and not an insubstantial bit of inspiration. But it takes a strong backbone, and a stronger stomach.

Because it's hard to stand up for what you believe in, and even harder to swallow the truth of a mistake.

But that's what makes us stronger, as writers and as people.
desaturated book

Into the New Year

1. I sent 'A Kind of Death', formerly titled 'Judith' to the Writers of the Future for consideration. I should hear results in about two and a half months.
2. Finished 'Struck By Chocolate', my attempt at a romance novel. It is currently tucked away, so that I might get some distance before revising.
3. Finished 'Phib', tentative title, a short story for the next quarter of WOTF.
4. Started 'Home'. New secrets. ><;

I finished writing SBC on the eighth of January, and dived right away into Phib. Then, I finished Phib on Thrusday. Friday saw me feeling sick and oogy, and starting a new novel. I remember days, weeks, months...years even, in my past when I didn't write anything.

"I'm not inspired."

"I'm too tired."

"I don't have anything to write about."

And to be honest, a lot of things have changed in my life. I'm married, I have a stable job and living situation, I'm not constantly stressed about money and basic safety. And I think that helps. But there was still about two years when I used those same excuses. Not until diving into NaNoWriMo and finishing Chasing Smoke did I realize that I can really do this. And I've been going ever since.

It was a choice I made to be awesome. To pursue my goals. Nothing special about me except that I made that choice, and that I make it again, every day.

The really funny thing I've found, though, is that I feel more inspired. I'm tired less often (and even when I am tired, I have the energy to write something). And I always have something to write about. Too much really. It's like exercising a muscle- the more you do it, the stronger it gets. 

I've seen a lot of resolutions getting thrown around the last couple weeks. A lot of goals, too, for those a bit squeamish on the word 'resolution'. I figured I would offer my own, here.

And, being one of those who finds the word resolution pretty empty, here are my 2010 goals:

1. Write a short story for every quarter of WOTF, and send that puppy in.
2. Write a novel I feel comfortable with submitting to agents.
3. Keep a record of all the books and short stories I read, as well as my thoughts on them.
4. Read. A lot. And then read some more.
5. Ditto #4, with writing.

I realize that all of these are writing focused. That's because that is where my life is focused right now. I want to be in the best possible position two years from now, when we move to Japan.

Oh, 1 more: 6. Post regularly on this blog. Having a ghost town of my life floating round on the internets is kind of depressing.

For anyone who stumbles across this space, feel free to add your own New Years...whatever you want to call them.

Who am I again?

 I jut listened to "An Ode to Katan Amano" on Escape Pod, by Caitlin Kiernan. She is the author of many novels and a slew of short stories. Her first novel "Silk", is one of three books that influenced me, greatly, in my youth. Something that pushed me to writing. (the other books are "Lost Souls " and "Drawing Blood", both by Poppy Brite.) 

I highly recommend this author. Some of her writing can be a bit over lyrical, and convoluted, but it generally lends to a whole ambience of whatever story you're reading. Her use of imagery is particularly intriguing, evoking images dark and beautiful.

As I said, she influenced the direction of my writing, or at least my writing desires, significantly. Lately I've been experiencing some trouble integrating what I want to write with my ideas on life. My philosophy is based on Objectivism, a philosophy created by Ayn Rand. A great author I have very little desire to emulate. The basis of Objectivism is reality is real, and man is heroic. How does one fit fantasy and, more importantly, horror into that kind of structure? I find myself reluctant to share m work with friends, with anyone. With myself.

On the other side of the coin I wan to just say fuck it! and get on with writing what I want to write. Why else bother? I don't know. I'm not sure this dilemma is reconcialable. 

The Bear of Editing

I loathe editing.


I know its essential. O know that on the other end I’ll have a better story. I know this, but still, I hate it. It makes me groggy at ten am, and pissy at two.


Which is why I am so very proud of myself for finishing the first round of edits on my newly completed short story, very tentatively titled “Judith”. I’ve had a very nasty habit of writing stories, giving them skimming edits, and letting them gather dust in my ‘portfolio’. This baby, though, has a home.


Or at least a doorstep I’m going to leave it on and hope someone loves it as much as I do.


You see, I’m sending Judith off to play worth all the other treasured short stories in the Writers of the Future slush pile.


Kind of a funny story there, actually. I was planning on getting it sent off in time for last quarter’s juding, which required a postmark of September 30th. I took that day off work, charged through finishing writing it and about a quarter of the way through edits, only to discover that I couldn’t go anywhere to get it post marked after 6.30. It was 7.15 at this point.


Argh, the frustration!


So I stopped. And knew, truly, that it was better this way. It gives me an extra three months to polish it up, make it shine for the judges. (And hopefully earn me at least a semi-finalist position I can grow from!)


Then, I come into work on Friday and learn that, of all the days for me to take off, that ended up being a very bad one. My boss was slammed, and with zero help. To make matters worse, that afternoon I learned about a post office, about an hour from my place, that postmarks until midnight. Oof- insult to injury.


But, like I said. Its for the best. And I’m trying to train myself to at least deal with the editing. Maybe someday I can learn to love it.


Like learning to love a canker sore.

Writing with a headache

My chiropractor says I need to get more exercise, and then maybe I wouldn't get headaches. I don't know whats he's talking about. I mean, I'm running all over the palace looking for that damned witch crone! I'm busy defying death with my Japanese bartender! I've got to catch the guy who stole my boss' money, way out at that creepy abandoned shrine!

Oh, wait a second. That's not me...

So I think he has a point. As enthralling as these adventures are, slumping on the couch with my feet propped up to hold my computer in my lap for hours at a stretch is probably not conducive to positive body health. I think I'll take a walk today.

Still, even with the stress/lack of motion headache yesterday, I managed to finish up a short story I've been working on for the last month. It acts as a kind of back story for some of the characters in the book I'm writing, so it was fun for me. The ending kind of changes things in the book, though.

Ah, which is okay, as I'm still not convinced I'll be finishing it. The Writers of the Future contest quarter deadline is fast approaching (October 1st!) and I am definitely going to submit something this time. Hell yeah! It'll be my first submission to anything since 7th grade (which won first place in the Halloween short story contest for a local paper, I must add. My only credit...).

This means the book goes on the tinkering pile, and I abandon the October 20th deadline, to focus on short stories. Still planning on participating in NaNoWriMo, though. I have a very...bittersweet story planned.

Also- Larry Brooks of StoryFix has a great blog series focusing on characterization going right now. Check it out! And the rest of his site is really chock full of meaty stuff.


A well timed death...

 My weekend experience a distinct lack of writing. 

I hit a snag.

I didn't know what to do next, in the novel. I didn't know where my characters were going, or why I cared about them getting there. If I cared. Everything seemed gray and dull and pointless. The writing left me cold. And so I didn't write.

Instead, on Saturday I went to see Inglourious Basterds. Fantastic flock, highly recommended. Favorite character: Landa. Gave me the freaking creeps.

And on Sunday I went to my writer's group. This is the second time I've gone to this one, which in and of itself is a rarity for me. I generally find the other members to be...well, lets just say a very wrong fit. But this seems to be turning out well. Its a SpecFic group, and I think the genre aspect of it is very appealing. I actually like the subject matter of the pieces, more often than not. Whereas before, it was a bit of a romance novel, a little bit of literary fiction, a smidge of sci-fi and (gag me with a spoon) memoir. 

And then today I opened up my latest less from How to Think Sideways- "Can't I Just Kill Them All?", which addresses the exact problem I was having. Gah story sucks, deleting files. But wait! There's a cure! Go ahead and indulge in a little blood lust, and ixnay someone you thought was crucial to the story. Yes! I knew exactly who needed to go, and a few minutes later how they were going to make the transition from damsel in distress to babe covered in blood.

From that point I just fell into the scene, and its going great. I learned about a whole prison full of men, all of them demented, deranged and destructive. Nice...I'll be able to work that in. Already got some interesting bubbles forming in my head for that bit of info. So, I'll move forward, and hopefully get this sucker done in time for Nano! 


On creating the book

Yesterday marked my most laborious Labor day. Fitting, I suppose. But after about 3,000 words I was beat.

I wouldn't have made it this far without some planning.

Last year I did NaNoWriMo, and succeeded both at making the word count, and at finishing the book I started (for the most part [pesky edits]), and I did it mostly by the seat of my pants. Oh yes, I wrote my first novel as a 'pantser', and there were a few days that I felt like a veritable 'panzer'. Oh, har har.

The novel exists. It sits upon my bookshelf with its author designed cover, and a too cute picture of me on the back. It mocks me with its sections of grey where I forgot to add a scene, or edit a remark before sending it to CreateSpace. It explores themes I didn't know were going to be important to me, and it reveals characters that are closer to home than I ever expected while writing. I'm glad, every day, that I wrote it. That I popped my book length fiction cherry.

And it is completely unpublishable.

Now, this may be an attribute of first novels. Often is, from all that I read and hear about. Maybe even second and third and...oh god what am I getting myself into?

But I think that the odds, for me, of creating a publishable novel go way down when I sit down in front of a blank page, drop a character in, and see where it goes. Its fun, I won't lie, but I always think I can do better.

So this current WIP I am using scene cards, and planning. Not to say these things are adjustable. They are. Any good plan leaves room for the unexpected, the miraculous. But I find I have more focus this way. I find that a 3K night doesn't feel like pulling teeth, because I know where the story is going, and how I'm going to get there.

Then again, this being only my second novel, I know I have a ton to learn about myself, and about what process works best for me, and when.

Any thoughts on pantsing v. planning? What works best for YOU, and when?

Bringing a close to the interlude

     After having been absent for more than half a year, I have decided to take this blog up again, and see if I can't whip it into some kind of shape.

    Fall is by far my favorite season. I know that is rather cliche, and Fall is a great number of people's favorite season, but a cliche is extant for a reason- there is a good deal of truth in it.
    The leaves changing colors, the snap that comes into the air which enables me to wear my lovely cardigans, the return of squash to the fruit stands.
     Don't you love the squash? There are so many varieties, some basic, many exotic. I'm making it my goal this year to try every kind of squash I can find. My husband will be thrilled, I'm sure.

     On the writing front- things are going swimmingly.
     I began taking Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways course a couple of months ago, and I am really impressed. She cuts through a lot of bullshit that writer's like to pull out (self pity, the idea that creativity is a mystic and unmanageable thing, the importance of planning) and gives you straight advice, a good deal of humor, and some fantastic exercises. My favorite, thus far, being the Law of Unintended Consequences exercise.
     As a way to demonstrate how logical, but unintended consequences works, Holly presents her students with three different, basic scenarios. We are then to write three distinct possible, but unintended consequences for each.
     For example- A tornado hits a town and destroys a school, a bank, etc.

One of my unintended consequences?

     A schoolteacher, out of work because the school is destroyed, volunteers to help with the cleanup and derives so much satisfaction from the work that she resigns as a teacher to join the Peace CORPS. 
This is a way to spice up a story, to bring richness and depth to a tale. No one could say- the tornado about to hit Kansas will lead a woman to her dream life. Though they could say that it will cause damage to property and possibly some lives. You see? Unintended vs. intended. 

I love this course.

     And my current WIP, a fantasy-ish novel about a man fighting his past, and trying to rescue his ex-wife, is about a third of the way done. My goal is to write at least 1,572 words per day, every day except Sunday, and finish on October 20th. My goal is being hit, and surpassed. Every day. 
     Setting these kinds of goals is crucial to my success, I've found. Particularly goals for my word count. An alloted amount of time doesn't work for me- I dither. Watching that wordcount bar fill up is mucho satisfying. Plus, writing nearly every day, with a planned day off, makes me feel better about life in general.

I'm pursuing my dreams! 

Its totally possible!

I'm king of the world!

You know, that kind of thing.