Category Archives: writing advice

Character-driven narrative

I admit that I am not a seasoned writer. Heck I started writing seriously only since mid-October, and all I have to show is one finished first draft of a novel and one short story. But I have already started planning my next novel, and I have ideas for several other short stories. So I guess the person who encouraged me to start writing was right – the more you write, the more ideas come to you.

But the point of today’s post is not about my writing experience or lack of thereof, well not entirely. I have read somewhere that writing is the never-ending path of self-discovery, and I agree with that statement. Even with my very limited experience, I have already discovered one fundamental thing about my writing – it is character-driven first and foremost.

As far as I can see all my stories, even the gazillion unfinished drafts, started with one or two characters. Usually, I see them in very vivid details, sometimes even with background stories, and then I have to try and build a story around them. One of my good friends once told me, “Think about where you want your characters to get, both physically and emotionally, and then build a story to accomplish that.” That’s the best piece of advice I have ever been given.

For example, Of Broken Things was born when one of the characters literally barged into my sleep, sat down and said “Listen, you are going to write this…” The initial idea was very simple: what would happen, if a super-soldier fell in love? And if the person he cared the most about was taken from him?

So in the beginning I only had one character with his set of problems and priorities. But then I had to think about what kind of woman would a man like that fall for? She would need to be truly exceptional… And that’s how Cassie came into the picture and took the spotlight. Then I started writing my outline, and all of a sudden private investigator Aiden Stappleton came out of nowhere and highjacked the whole of Act 1. But even with all that, ultimately the story was still about the super-soldier and the consequences of his actions.

Working on Of Broken Things showed me that I like writing about characters. I like putting them in difficult situation and watching them change in order to overcome obstacles. Story and setting are important, but only as a catalyst for character change.

This realization made me take a good look at the books, movies and TV shows I like. Just as I thought, they are all character-driven. The author could have created the most beautiful world with the most complex society, thought about how the magic works and what Gods his people worship, but if the characters walking this world fail to interest me, I will probably put the book down before I reach the end. Setting and world building doesn’t interest me if they don’t influence the protagonist and make him or her evolve in some way.

I think discovering this particularity about my writing is a big help against writer’s block, because now when I feel stuck in my writing, I know that it’s probably because I lost sight of my character’s development somewhere along the way and made them do something very out of character.

On editing – did I really write this crap?

When I was in the middle of the first draft of my novel, I ready many blog posts about writing, first drafts, rewriting and editing. I read somewhere that first drafts sucked, and that you were lucky if you kept about 10% of it on the rewrite. I remember thinking this can’t be true! That would be absolutely horrible and heartbreaking to spend months putting one word after the other just to have most of them end up in the dust bin.

Well, once I finished my first draft and put it in a drawer to marinate until I come back to it in February, I decided to distract myself by writing a short story. It was set in a completely different world than my novel and it was fun to write… Then I decided that before I could dive into editing a 100k words manuscript, I should probably try and tackle a 4k words story first, just to see what it entrails.

I read my short story with a critical eye and realized that it had all kinds of inherent problems.

First of all I was so focused on putting the story down and fitting it in a short story format, that I didn’t give my main character a chance to say anything. Basically, it was like I gagged her, tied strings to her arms and legs, and marched her down the story like a brave little puppet. She did all those wonderful deeds and never got a moment to tell the reader why she did them or how she felt about them.

Then I noticed a second problem with my story. My heroine encounters an old dying werewolf and, after hearing the creature’s story, takes pity on it and puts its soul to rest. Well, the werewolf’s story frankly sucked. A woman scorned by a man who turns into a monster and destroys the entire village where the man lived? Including innocent women and children who had done her no harm? No way in hell my character would empathize with a monster like that! But the fact that she connected with the werewolf and understood her pain was important to the story. The conclusion was – the werewolf needed a better story.

 Editing my short story.Editing my short story.

So I sat down with my printed short story, lots of spare paper and a blue pen and went to town: changing, adding, crossing out and rewriting. In the end I think I kept maybe 5% of the original first draft, everything else had been drastically rewritten. I think the story is better now, but that still a lot of words that ended up deleted.

 

This also kind of scares me when I think about the 100k words 350 pages monster waiting for me in my desk drawer. If I have to rewrite my novel just as drastically, it will take me months to accomplish this.

Frist Drafts woes and wonders – rebelling characters.

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NaNoWriMo is over and done, but at the end of it I still had an unfinished story on my hands. So I had decided to keep up the good habits I picked up during November and write every day. I set my goal to 1200 words per day, which is about 800 words less than the mad rush of NaNo. I managed to stick to it so far, so my manuscript is now at 68k words and I would reach the end of Part 2 after one more chapter.

 This feels really good, to see this story finally taking shape on paper. I have never stuck with a story for so long and so consistently before. I have never written so many words before on one story either. The feeling is… exhilarating. If feels like an accomplishment. Even if my story is only two thirds done, even if I still have at least a long month of bleeding words on paper in front of me, I feel like having a small celebration. Like I passed a milestone or something.

But this is not what I wanted to discuss today. No, I wanted to talk about characters and all the marvelous things they do to advance your plot and sometimes totally mess up your carefully laid plans and nicely detailed outlines.

 When I wrote Part 1 of my novel during NaNo, my main character Aiden was a good sport and went along with almost everything I had planned for him. He rebelled only on the small details. So we really had a peaceful and productive collaboration during the month of November.

 Then I wrapped up Part 1 and moved to Part 2 which follows another character. I knew that I was in deep trouble from the get go. This character has a mindset very different from my own, so getting into his head and writing from his perspective was like reformatting my brain with a screwdriver – a slow and painful process. And as if to add to the suffering, he decided to fight me every step of the way. All my carefully-laid plans for Part 2? Out of the window. All the shiny scenes of romance and conflict I thought I would write? Scrapped and disposed of. He was having none of it. It was going to be his way or no way at all. So for fourteen chapters now I have been in a state of panicked wonder – how will he manage to change my plot this time?

 But you know what? I am just one chapter away from finishing his arc of the story and looking back at it, I must admit that what he did is much better, more in character than anything I had in mind.

 So my question to you all is how often do your characters rebel against your plans? Do you go along with them when they do? Does it turn out better when you do give them free reign or worse?

NaNoWriMo – 15 days to go.

ImageWell, we are half-way through November already. Time just seems to fly by, doesn’t it? This is my first NaNoWriMo and to tell the truth I wasn’t sure if I could make it. But as of today I am at 30k words and about one chapter way from finishing Part 1 in my novel. And I still have 15 days to write another 20k words. That looks a lot less daunting than the big 50k from November 1. So I start getting more hopeful about the fact that I can make it to then end and win.

I would like to use this half-way point to go over some of the observations I made so far about my writing process. Hopefully, someone else will find them useful too.

1. Discipline helps. I haven’t missed  single day of writing so far. I made sure that I would find time to sit down and work on my novel every day, rain, snow or storm. It doesn’t matter how much time I have, even a five minute coffee break spent scribbling in a notepad can produce 100-200 words. A lunch date with a pen and paper adds another 400-500 words. And in the end, it all adds up.

2. Setting goals and working towards reaching them is essential. When I decided to do NaNo, I set myself  a daily goal of 1700 words. And I made a vow not to go to bed until I reach that goal. So it doesn’t matter if my pen is flying so fast that makes the paper smoke or if my muse packed up and went on vacation, I will sit and put one word after another until I get that goal done. And most of the days I end up with 200-300 words over that goal.

3. Celebrating small and big achievements is a sure way of boost motivation. I had a piece of chocolate cake and a fresh cup of tea when I reached my first 10k. I pored myself a glass of wine at the 20k marker. I sneak attacked my husband in the bedroom after I flew by the 25k :). Those little celebrations really make you want to go on writing, and thinking about your next reward helps when the fatigue sets in and you start getting discouraged with your writing.

4. Word wars and prompts help. No, seriously, they really do! There are days when words are just not coming, no matter how much you stare at the blank screen. I found that picking up a prompt or joining a word war either on the site or on twitter @NaNoWordsprints helps me get the ideas on the page. I tend to procrastinate less when I have a deadline.

5. Do not get discouraged. Whether you are 5k ahead or 10k behind, keep writing. You still have 15 days to go, don’t abandon you novel now. Every word you add to it is more than you had before. Word by word, the novel will get from “Once upon a time” to “The end”.

So how is everyone else doing at his half-way point? What are you guys happy about or struggling with?

NaNoWriMo – half way through week one.

ImageThe first week of NaNoWriMo is not over yet but I have broken the 10k words mark today. That’s one fifth of the goal done. I think I will allow myself a glass of wine tonight to celebrate.

Between bouts of frantic writing this weekend, I have noticed several things.

First of all, tying and gaging my inner editor and shoving her in a dark closet for the duration of NaNo had been strangely liberating. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to just put words on paper (or on the computer screen in my case) without worrying about bad grammar, spelling or lack of style. Yes, it might look like a smoking pile of manure, but it moves the story forward, and anything is better than a blank page. Manure I can work with later and grow beautiful polished prose with, blank – not so much.

Another thing that I learned about my writing – having a pretty good idea of where your story goes and outlining it works wonders. All the other (unsuccessful) attempts at writing a novel started with me having a wonderful idea and a vague picture of the main characters. And I would sit down and happily punch words in for a week or two. Then I would get lost with no idea where my story is supposed to go, or hit a roadblock, or just lose interest and move on to a new shiny idea.

In this case I spent the entire month of October thinking about my story. I wrote the main idea, I thought about the beginning and the ending, I even sat down and wrote a more or less detailed outline. I dived into my world and tried to figure out as much about it as I could. I cornered my characters in tights spaces and interrogated them. So when November 1 arrived, I knew my world and my characters and I had a pretty good idea where my story was going. And guess what – I am still very much in love with the story.

So lesson learned – do not jump right into writing, let the idea sit and mature, poke at it for a week or two and see if what hatches is worth writing about.

Oh and I also found an excellent book by Timothy Hallinan called Finish Your Novel, there is a lot of very good advice and encouragement here, so I definitely recommend it to all aspiring novelists.