bookmark_borderWriting a Character Driven Novel

I’ve completed four novels to date, all connected with some form of writing competition; three NaNoWriMos and one 3DayNovel; a 23,500 word submission which subsequently expanded into a 60,000 word novel.

The one that I’m working on now is the first non-competition generated novel. It’s also the most character-driven and has some of the thickest writing that I’ve done other than in some short stories. Thick meaning dense; the words mean something, the writing style and topics are not light and superficial, the characters, situations, dialogue are not thin throwaways produced simply to titillate or entertain or to get from one plot point to the next. The main character comes from a dark background and she’s trying to adapt to a low or lower-middle class world and is discovering that she has some unusual talents that point her in a direction that she never would have considered. A very genre-esque plot technique and the story definitely is not without genre elements, but I find the character irresistible and I think she’s up for it.

But the process of writing is interesting. The first four chapters, followed by some background-exposing chapters, presented in memoir or reminiscing form to be inserted into the story at unknown points, were fairly easy to write and allowed me to define the character. Then I wrote some early plot-necessary chapters and scenes, followed by some middle section plot-necessary chapters, though I’m missing some sections and I’m not convinced that the order is correct. These grew out of some characters and situations that I established in the early writing, so they seemed to flow well enough, though, I am sensing now that I lost some of the character’s voice, some of her unique and interesting characteristics in these plot scenes, falling back instead on some default hero/heroine personality that is indistinguishable from some of my other central characters, particularly the journalist-investigator of two and a half novels that I wrote over the past two years.

This revision is part of the process that I find interesting. Last week I reached a point where I was no longer comfortable with the writing that I was trying to add. Partly this is because I don’t know exactly how the story ends so I don’t know what I’m working toward, but, I’m drawing close (over 65,000 words) and what I have planned so far lacks the inevitability that I want. If I were to go ahead, dump another 20,000 words, and finish it off, I’d feel as if I had disrespected the quality of the opening, let myself down.

Instead, I’m analyzing the novel to date, focusing on the first materials that wrote. I started with a page of general thoughts because I felt I was losing track of miscellaneous ideas, especially since I haven’t written every idea that I’ve had, and what I have written is incomplete and missing some scenes necessary for the plot, such as it stands now. Then another page of worries and things that I felt are missing or underexposed. That led to a list of my character’s key personality traits, which led to a list of type of situations where these traits can be exposed. Then I looked for themes, particularly those within the key backstory chapter, the one that largely defines how she came to be who she is now. This process is a lot like the ones I remember using to write papers in English Lit classes in university, except that the novel is incomplete and, as I discovered, the consistency is missing.

Having the themes drove me back to the situation and personality analysis to see where I can force the themes to carry through, to develop consistency and meaning, and that has led me to the where I am now, editing chapters to bring out her character and reinforce themes. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to end, but hopefully I’m getting closer.


bookmark_borderJust writing moments; Doing the 3 Day Novel

Over the September long weekend I did the 3 Day Novel. I don’t want to write about that experience so much (though if you write fiction and have never tried it, give it a go!) but I went through a new, for me, writing experience in the process.

I was uncertain about participating in the competition because 1) I had been struggling to write lately, and 2) I had no plan; no plot, no characters, just a vague idea that I wanted to try my hand at some YA simply because I like to try my hand at different genres.

In the last couple of days prior I researched some typical adolescent worries. Then I took those and thought about how they might present themselves as characteristics or actions. For some I had more than one since any one could present themselves in a number of ways.  For example, take school grades and homework. One person might study and worry, another person might procrastinate and panic, but that same person may in another situation actually study hard. Adolescents are human too, and their choice of action or reaction can vary.

Having a list of possible ways in which these concerns might present (I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of “House”, btw) I started attaching some of them to three different characters. But as of midnight on Friday, start time for the 3 Day Novel, that’s all I had.

For the novel competition you can prepare as much as you like but you cannot do any writing. I spent the first hour or so of my time not writing but creating “moments”; story elements that are, for the most part, shorter than chapters or scenes. For example, one “moment” was “girl 1 tells the others that she heard that someone at another school committed suicide”. That’s too short for a chapter, but I decided on a number of moments that would present the characteristics of my characters to the reader.

When I started writing, all I did was to pick and choose moments to write, moments to flesh out and bring to life. I didn’t necessarily do them in order of occurrence and I didn’t worry about how long or how these moments would work together. I just made these moments into fiction.

Toward the end I started thinking in terms of balance and time lines and rearranged some of the planned order of these moments. I also started to add to some of them and fill them out into chapters, and in a couple instances joined two moments into one chapter. Eventually I realized that I was pretty much done; all the moments were down on paper. Then it was time to finalize the order and to write the ending and the opening.

As it turned out, this last stage happened during the evening of the second day, meaning that I was way ahead of schedule. It also cut my novel short resulting in a 10,000 short story rather than a novel. But forcing more material into the story would only decrease the quality as the word count increased. That’s not to say that a year from now and after multiple reviews that this won’t be a 25,000 word story, but within the single remaining day I wasn’t going to improve the story and add substantial length at the same time, so I edited it and sent it off for the competition entry as it was.

I think the result is not a bad short story, but more important to me is the approach to writing that I learned; defining characters with characteristics, figuring out how those characteristics might present (or in reverse order; characteristics then characters), designing moments to represent the characters to the reader, then putting those moments down on paper without thinking about chapters or flow or sequence.

bookmark_borderSewing together a new first draft

One of my objectives of having a blog is to track the learning experiences of the process of learning to write fiction so this particular entry is an attempt to log some of the things that I’ve noted recently. Currently I’m working on a second version of the first draft of my 3DayNovel. I don’t consider this to be a second draft as I’m not revising much of what has already been written; this is a second version of the first draft. At least that’s how I see it.

What I have is around 20,000 words to add to the original 23,000 that I wrote this past Labor Day weekend. One of the interesting things is that I feel as if I’ve written some new subroutines and now I have to figure out how and where these run the compiler to insert them in the original program. These new chunks don’t just slide right in; I didn’t have obvious sections that I missed and I didn’t rewrite any material in this second stage of writing so now the old has to be revised to connect properly with the new. New connecting paragraphs and explanations have to be written and some old writing has to be revised to devise a logical connection to the new material. It’s as if I’m sewing new blocks into a quilt or replacing a kidney, or something like that.

It’s also reinforced to me the fact that I’m cheap with words. It can be very difficult for me to write or to say a lot of words if I don’t have a reason to do so. As a result I only came up with 20,000 words over two-three weeks, and, with only one exception so far, I’ve found a place to work the new material into the story. In other words it’s hard for me come up with words, and then they have come through such a difficult filter in order to escape me that it’s hard not to use them when they’re out. Kinda like appreciating the little gems that you produce when you’re constipated?

So, right now I’m doing a little writing, most of it in the form of stitching material together into a coherent whole.