Sunday, February 22, 2015

Some Thoughts About Characters in a Story

So I'm working on a revision for an MG (middle grade) fantasy. Ok, its not really a revision. I'm rewriting the whole thing. My agent, Adriann, wants me to focus on depth of character in this version. And I whole heartedly agree. The last book I wrote was a contemporary YA about a figure skater. I was able to really flesh out those characters because I've lived in the figure skating world for twenty plus years. And it wasn't until I received revision notes on the MG from my agent did I realize that I didn't come anywhere close to being as immersed in the world of my characters in this new story.

So I've been doing a ton of research. I'm practically stalking the NASA website, learning as much as I can about stars, watching YouTube videos on how to operate telescopes, watching ANCIENT ALIENS on Netflix, and I just finished reading a biography about Einstein. What a fascinating individual.

But research can be a daunting task because I'm coming across many ideas and concepts that will never make it into the actual story. But as I read and watch and learn I can feel the characters coming to life in my head. And as the characters deepen, the plot reveals itself.

In the past I always thought I had to map out the plot first and then install the characters (I was wrong). With the YA contemporary about the figure skater, even though I hadn't realized it at the time, I knew the characters as well as I knew myself and so the plot unfolded organically.

This past January I took part in Natalie Parker's Crit Camp and she said something that was a total light bulb moment for me. She said to imagine your story like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid, the foundation of the story are the characters. The middle section is world building and setting, and the top of the pyramid is the plot.

I've heard this before, but it was just the way Natalie said it, the way she diagrammed out, that really resonated with me. And it made me realize that all my favorite books are heavily character driven. The characters ARE the story. THE INFERNAL DEVICES. THE SCORPIO RACES. HARRY POTTER. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. THE RAVEN CYCLE. THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE.
I fell in love with the characters first and foremost.

All these thoughts about character have been percolating in my brain since January and then I saw that J.K. Rowling tweeted this recently:

And it just makes sense! When I first started researching for the rewrite I have to admit that I felt like I wasn't being productive. In my mind productivity = word count. But, I've learned that spending some time to get to know your characters and researching what makes them tick can be just as productive and vitally important to the success of your story.

Happy Writing!

Monday, February 2, 2015

What We Learned From NaNoWriMo

Today my long time friend Cassidy Savidi (@OptionalD) and I are going to talk about how even though we didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo this past November, we learned some valuable lessons.

Let me start by thanking Anita for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I’ve known Anita more years than is decent and have always been impressed by her many talents. I was lucky enough to be a beta reader on one of her projects and can’t wait to buy and champion her first book - whatever it may be.

Awww...I was lucky to have you beta read that project and share your thoughts on it. Even though it ultimately became a drawer novel I learned so much from that manuscript. So Cassidy, tell us about your NaNo experience.

This was my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month, and although I only made it to 28,525 words, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in the process. I managed to build a fairly solid foundation to a new world and fleshed out some interesting characters. I did not “win”, but after 30 days of writing, I have 28,000+ more words than had I never attempted NaNoWriMo. Something always trumps nothing.

Cassidy, I totally agree. It would take some complicated math to figure out how long we’ve known each other and yes, something is always better than nothing.

November 2014 was my second attempt at NaNo and I wrote 10,435 words of a new YA Fantasy. And like you, I don’t think I would have even written that much had it not been for NaNoWriMo. As I was writing the new project for NaNo, I was also concurrently revising an MG Fantasy. What helped me stay on track was Victoria Schwab’s Sticker Method. It was my first time applying this pacing technique to my writing.

I bought a cheapo calendar from Walmart and some sparkly stickers that just yelled, “stick me on something.” Tiny star stickers were designated as rewards for small accomplishments and cuddly, glittery panda stickers for big accomplishments. For every chapter I revised I got a star sticker and for every 1000 words I wrote I also gave myself a star sticker. The sticker method may seem silly to some, but there is something immensely satisfying when you look at your calendar and it is full of stickers. And when the stickers were sparse on the calendar, the sad empty white space gave me the extra kick in the rear I needed to get back on track. I will definitely continue the sticker method in my writing routine and for NaNo 2015. Cassidy, how did you start your NaNo journey?

I started by reading No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Each chapter deals with a specific week of the challenge and some tips and strategies. I recommend this guide for anyone that attempts NaNoWriMo. I did not have any cuddly, glittery panda stickers, but rewards are central to a challenge like this. The NaNoWriMo website has achievements that unlock when you reach certain page counts, and the book offers various strategies for rewards and punishments to motivate yourself. I will caution first-timers that no plot is in fact a problem. I’m a pantser by nature, but you must have some sort of sign posts to be able to make it through 50k words in 30 days. At 25k words I realized that I was just hitting the second act while simultaneously writing myself out into thin air like an authorial Wiley E. Coyote holding an “uh-oh” sign. 50k is a short book. It doesn’t feel short when you have to write it in 30 days, but if you’re used to reading and plotting regular length novels then you may find it hard to pace and pants at the same time. This year, I solemnly swear to have a general outline before attempting NaNoWriMo. Probably.

Cassidy I’m glad you brought up outlines. Prior to November I actually did make a beat sheet (for those of you who don’t know what a beat sheet is I recommend reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder) and used an act structure diagram to map out the high and low points of my shiny new story. I also wrote one hundred declarative sentences about the main characters. It’s a technique I learned from Mary Kole, back when she was a literary agent. For example, if I was going to write 100 declarative sentences about Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games it would go something like this:

Katniss loves her sister Prim above all else.
Katniss has a sense of duty towards her family.
Katniss despises the Republic.

I think you get the picture.

Even though I didn’t write 50k words for NaNo there is something to be said about an entire month dedicated to BIC (butt in chair) and to word quantity. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate quality words. But sometimes that internal editor just won’t shut off for me and thus the quantity of words suffer. But during NaNo I felt like I could just tell the internal editor to take a vacation and there was something freeing about that.

I agree 102% (100 + 2 because I will now add my 2 per-cents). Writing is a muscle. Thirty days of writing at least 1500 words a day is like doing P90X/Insanity/BeachBody on your mind brain. You will learn that writing will not kill you (though it may feel like it is maiming you). You will form a habit by writing every day for 30 days. A writing habit wards off writer’s block. If you take advantage of the NaNoWriMo website, you will connect with other writers virtually and in person at local write-ins. You may not have much quality at the end of the month, but you’ll have something. There will be glimmers. There may even be a nugget of gold. Even if you end up with something that you delete or ceremoniously render unto ash, you have written every day (or almost every day) for a month. You will have greatly strengthened your writing muscles. Can you imagine if I actually exercised my body every day for a month? Yeah, me neither. So this is as close as it gets.

Writing is seasonal for me. I don’t know why it works out this way, but I usually start new projects in the fall. Take a break for the holidays. And then write and revise from January to early summer. NaNo just seems a great way for me to kick start a new manuscript, and I’ll definitely be doing it next year. How about you Cassidy?

November is an awful time to try and write every day. It’s a 30 day month. There are two major U.S. holidays (one involves massive amounts of tryptophan). The leaves are changing in most areas, and it’s actually morally irresponsible to not go traipsing through them. And yet, November may just turn out to be my most productive month. Thank you, Anita. Good Luck everyone. See you in November. Friend me on the NaNoWriMo website at OptionalD. My mind brain is going to get so buff this year.

Thank you for sharing your writerly wisdom Cassidy and for reminding me to ask people to friend me as well on the NaNoWriMo website at AnitaSk8. Hopefully Cassidy and I will be posting again next year to talk about our Nano experiences.

Happy writing everyone!