Friday Exercise – Nightmare

The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade.  Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character.  Yes, you read that right.  I cut the main character.  The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist.  She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.

Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit.  See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both.  And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying.  No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons.  Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly.  Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.

I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise.  I’m just verbose today.  Or loquacious.  Either word is a good one.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability.  NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces.  This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.

The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years.  And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had.  I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character).  The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.

So the exercise, finally, is this:  Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist.  Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them).  Just see what comes out of it.  Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare.  What underlying fears does this expose?  Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)?  What do the other people in the dream represent to your character?  The places?  What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc?  Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?

The Little Rough Draft That Could

This week, I’ve finally buckled down and started serious work on rewriting the rough draft I finished in November.  In January, I reread it (the first time I’ve looked it over since I wrote it) and made about ten pages (front and back) of notes – too much exposition here, need clarification there, move this scene to here, more backstory for this person, cut that character out, etc.  Then I sidled uncomfortably away from it to avoid the part where you clutch your head in your hands and wonder how the hell you’re going to make it all work.

This week, I surprised my rough draft by confronting it outright.  It wasn’t expecting that, so my frontal assault went well.  We were honest and open with one another and the results were good – the rough draft is aware that it needs true change in its life, and it’s ready to face the challenges of transformation that it needs to go through in order to achieve its potential.  I have explained to it that it won’t do either of us any good for me to be gentle about it, that this is a time for straightforwardness and tough love.  The rough draft understands that, and claims to appreciate my good intentions, even when it hurts a little to hear the truth.

So now that we’re on the same page, (haha) I can finally get down to brass tacks.  At the beginning of a rewrite, I feel like there’s this huge, unmanageable nebula of STORY that is bigger than the sum of the words that make it up, and I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of shaping the STORY, not just the words.  It seems impossible to organize, and I worry about it for a few weeks without really accomplishing much.  Then, at some point (in this case, this past week), I just start working, and things begin to take shape and make sense – almost instinctually, connections coming together “all on their own”.

Maybe that two or three weeks of “Oh, crap, I don’t wanna do this!” are actually necessary, and maybe underneath the panic, my subconscious is working away on the story in an effort to soothe my terrified conscious writer-brain.

Regardless, once I get started, my method is firmly reliant on organization and note-making.  What I’m doing to get to draft two is:

  • Break the book up into chapters, since the rough was so rough I didn’t even try to make it coherent (50,000 words in one month will do that)
  • At the beginning of each chapter, make notes on what needs to be fixed about the material, unless the entire chapter needs to be moved to another part of the book – then, I note what material should be in the chapter and where the current material needs to be moved to
  • Include in the chapter by chapter notes any overarching themes/conflicts/ideas that need to be established by that point (such as, “By now, I need to have explained the Tiernan religion’s kin figures…might be a good spot here, when Cordell does [this].”)
  • Obey the notes.

Once you have a plan for every chapter, it doesn’t seem so horribly overwhelming to dig in and do the work.  It starts to feel exciting.  It starts to be easy, except where you run into snags, and even those start to feel like puzzles to enjoy solving (in spite of the swearing that occurs as you work on them).  It’s starting to feel exciting to me now, and although I know I will gripe and moan over this draft later, I also know that I’ll get it done and I’ll be glad I did it.

Reflections on NaNoWriMo 2010

I have mixed reactions to my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short, NaNo for shorter).  For those who are unfamiliar with it, the idea is to write 50,000 words or more in 30 days or fewer.  Generally, it’s advised to write at least 1667 words per day (which will get you to the 50,000 goal if you stick to it every day in November).

My preparations for NaNo were woefully inadequate for helping me get through the month’s word count.  I know there are some writers who wing it in November and do just fine, but, although I shy away from a strict outline process in favor of spontaneity, I have a lot of trouble holding the middle of a novel together during my first stab at it.  Without a clear sense of how things get from point A to point C, my brain goes into a death spiral of doubt, confusion, obstinacy, and just plain childish frustration.  Normally, I can take a step back and spend a few days working out the big picture before I have to force the story on toward a conclusion, giving me a chance to regroup, as it were, and find the logic of the next few steps – like looking at the whole chessboard before you make your move.

In the frenzy of NaNo, there was no way I was going to have the leisure to take such a tactical approach – the whole point, as I understand it, of NaNo is to push yourself and trust the process to produce its own results in the long haul of the month.  So, I pushed myself and watched to see what would happen.  I don’t feel I’ll know exactly how much or how little I got out of the NaNo approach until I start my rewrites (not anytime in the next two weeks, at least, I’ll tell you!) but I will list some of the pros and cons as I see them now, in the immediate aftermath:

  • + I have an entire rough draft of a novel that didn’t exist a month ago
  • – I have a great deal of housework, shopping, and errands to catch up on after neglecting all other aspects of my life for a month
  • + I discovered some character vulnerabilities and inner conflicts that I never would have thought of if I’d sat around trying to come up with them, but in desperation to find something to churn out words about, I essentially stream-of-consciousnessed them into existence
  • + I found unplanned and unexpected characters and subplots that will contribute a great deal to the main storyline, which if I hadn’t been in a hurry to get a word count out, I would’ve refused to add in out of fear of further complicating an already complicated novel
  • – I felt mostly like a crazy person through the better part of last month
  • – This is the worst rough draft I’ve ever written.  It’s not cohesive in the least, has almost no middle, and isn’t even in any kind of order.  I think I could’ve done a much better job on it if I’d had more time to think it out
  • + I have the basics of the entire plot laid out, and I feel like the middle will be much easier to fill in now that I know exactly how the book ends (I wrote the final scene on my last day of NaNo)
  • + I feel like a superhero for having accomplished this insane feat!

Looking over those, I think the pros far outweigh the cons, although I doubt I would’ve said that a week ago, in the throes of whiny inner-artiste agony and despair and with almost no food in the house because there wasn’t time to shop and do my word count.

All in all, it was worth a month of feeling sideways, living cooped up in my own head, being out of touch with almost everyone in the world, and never really being able to relax.  Yes, it was hard work, and yes, I felt stressed out and at times seriously questioned my sanity and adulthood because of how crappy I felt being stuck at home all the time.  But one month of suffering is well worth having a great starting point for a novel I’ve wanted to write for the past twelve years.  Not to mention the ego boost of finishing.  Ha!

Back From a Bloodstained Victory!

I literally just finished National Novel Writing Month – as in, half an hour ago at most.  50,000 words or more in 30 days or less.  And I have lots and lots of thoughts on the process, and many observations on writing and writer’s block and inspiration and self-discipline, having lived through this month of madness.  But right now, I’m too sick of looking at words on a screen to want to write a post about any of it.

However, I will say this:  that I got a lot out of the month, even if it did drive me slightly crazy, and even if my rough draft is the roughest draft I have ever written in my life.  Also, I will say that I hope to get back to my Monday-Wednesday-Friday postings here, with the regularity to which the readers of this blog had become accustomed before NaNoWriMo struck with deadly force.

Butting Heads

So far, what I’ve picked up from my first NaNoWriMo is this:  the hardest parts of any writing session are (a) getting started in the first place and (b) starting a new scene.  Once I get rolling on a given scene, it’s easy – provided I don’t worry about researching anything and just put brackets with reminders to myself about where I need to fill in details later.  Dialogue, especially involving any kind of disagreement, comes very easily, and inner turmoil fills out my word count faster than I even realize as I’m writing it.

Whether this says something about me as a person (confrontational, are we?) or whether it’s related to the fact that there is inherent conflict in those types of passages, I’m not sure.  😉

Another short post that’s more observation than anything else, but until the end of November, it seems this is all my brain is capable of blogging about.

Looking Ahead

I’m curious to see how awful the editing process will be after I get the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel finished.  Writing an entire draft in a single month sounded crazy to me at first, but (at least with a pre-plotted concept) it’s going surprisingly well for me.  If the second draft rewrites are Hell on Earth, maybe this won’t become a regular practise for me, but if I find that the rewriting is no worse than usual, this is going to become my novel-writing method from now on!

Granted, all I do other than write and work right now is sleep and eat (not at the same time, thankfully (yet)) but one month out of the year is well worth it if I come out of that month with a novel to show for it.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is, since normally my posts center around some kind of observation on the process itself, a method that has worked for me, or a brainstorming method.  Troubleshooting, as it were, for the writing and editing processes.  I’ll try to keep that up, but most of my mental energy right now is going straight to the pages of my book, so the blog may suffer in November.

So, I’m sorry for the brain-dead post, but that’s all I’ve got right now.  I’m zapped!

Full Speed Ahead

Here is what I’ve learned from three days of NaNoWriMo:

  • Do your word count no matter what.  Yesterday I wrote 400 of my 2000 words in a noisy laundromat with NFL news pulling at me from the TV and an old acquaintance popping over to chat intermittently.
  • If you’re not sure about a particular scene but you know what you’re going to do next, skip to the ‘next’.  Just put in a note for yourself like, “Scene where C and M are reunited.  M’s background discussed etc.” or whatever.
  • Keep notes on things you know you need to research, inconsistencies or things you want to change, places that felt awkward while you wrote them.  Keep notes on this stuff, but DON’T WORK ON IT YET.  Tweaking ain’t going to get your story out of your head and into a tangible form.
  • Reward yourself when you get your work done!  Good food, good company, and relaxation go a long way toward positive self-reinforcement.

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

So today is the first day of my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month.  This means that (a) I will likely have a lot to say about the process of speed-writing this month and following, and (b) by the time I do my word count for NaNo, my brain is like a small mound of jelly in the middle of a dance floor on a July afternoon, which is to say mooshy and helpless and likely to be abruptly and unexpectedly squidged.  Although apparently creative, still.

Given the state of my brain right now, I will give you a quick recap of what the first day of NaNoWriMo was like for me:

Go to grocery in hopes of stocking up enough food not to have to do another big shop for the rest of November.  Buy ridiculous amounts of food and realize while putting it away that you really ought to have taken care of the laundry and dishes over the weekend, but you didn’t, because you knew it was your last weekend before diving into being a feral writer for a month.

Say to hell with the dishes and laundry, write 700 words.  Agonize.  Second-guess.  Remember you aren’t supposed to do that in November.  Sit back down.  Realize you are stuck.  Write 300 words anyway.  Realize you’re really tired and you feel like you’ve used all your ideas for today.  Sit there for twenty minutes before remembering that coffee exists.  Drink coffee, eat something (don’t remember what), and decide to play guitar for a while instead.

Sit down and try to write.  Still not feeling it.  Go for a walk and drop the rent off on the way home.  Inadvertently start writing a song while walking, and have to write it down right away when you get home.  Take a shower.  Realize you need to figure out the chords to the song you made up on your walk, before you forget the tune.  Realize you’re avoiding your novel.  Find the chords anyway, and write them down.

Sit back down.  Whinge via text messages.  Drink the rest of the pot of coffee you made earlier.  Buckle down again and write the rest of your word count and beyond, ending up with a daily count of 2348 words.

Realize you’re starving and haven’t eaten in five hours (for me, that’s eternity in food terms).  Heat up potato from dinner three days ago.  Avoid looking at dishes in sink.  Update blog.

It felt good to push past where I thought I needed to stop for the day and find a second wind.  I really got on a roll again, which I didn’t expect.  I’m both excited and dubious about doing this every day for a month, but so far my usual tricks (taking breaks to get out and walk, or exercising some other form of creative process (guitar, in today’s case), etc.) are working well for me.

Unlocking Potentials

I’m facing an interesting challenge with my upcoming novel, which has me thinking a lot about character development. Characters are by far my favorite aspect of writing, and inner conflict is the thing that gets me most excited about a plotline – I love constructing the cause and effect interplay between a story and the people in it. When it clicks, the plot and the characters play off each other in this beautifully logical dance, and it doesn’t even feel like work to write it. LOVE IT!

Character development is a damn tricky thing, though, especially when it’s necessary for a character to undergo a supremely intense transformation. You don’t want your characters to have too little growth through the course of the story, or you lose a whole dimension of what’s satisfying about both the writing and the reading of fiction. On the other hand, you can’t make a character do a complete about-face unless you really lay the groundwork first. And that groundwork better be convincing.

People are full of potential – toward all kinds of things. We don’t have just a potential to live up to, we have hundreds of possible potentials that are constantly in flux, always vying for dominance in our actions and behaviors and attitudes. Unless you know someone very well, you probably see only a small range of possibilities in them. Some people you’re close enough to that you’re aware of the contradictions within them and you can see all sorts of angles to what makes up who they are. I get a lot of inspiration in writing simply from observing other people, being aware of how people operate and think, paying attention to dichotomies and wondering how seeming contradictions are resolved within one person.

One of the most important things to do when you’re aiming a character toward a major, life-altering transformation is to hint at the fact that they already have this other, new self in them. It’s there, dormant, waiting to be unlocked. They already are who they’re about to become, on some level. Maybe the other characters are shocked at this previously untapped part of them being suddenly displayed, but it was always there. That’s the way things work in real life, and that’s the only way to make such a metamorphosis believable in fiction.

“People don’t change” is one of the least accurate phrases ever uttered, and yet, in a way, it’s also true. People do change, sometimes a great deal, both externally and internally, particularly in the intense circumstances that characters in fiction are often put through, but you’re never going to be a whole new person, especially overnight, and neither will your characters.

My challenge: making an altruistically inclined woman who wants to improve the world into a ruthless, cutthroat murderess who’ll stop at nothing to bend everything to her will. And then deciding if there’s any hope for her redemption somewhere later on in the series. I know the events that lead to her changing, much of the way her intentions twist from positive to horrific, and the sources of her need for control and power. The hard part is turning her into a cold-blooded killer. We shall see how I fare at this task next month!

Series Bible, Take 1

So I’m looking into this whole “series bible” thing – seemed like a good idea, since I’m about to delve into writing a trilogy.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  A series bible is just an organized set of notes on who/what/where everything is in your books – a way to keep track of people and settings that you mention, even in passing.  So if you need that information later, you have an easy reference for it instead of having to scan back through your whole manuscript to find out what color some bit character’s eyes were. 

Honestly, I already have so many notes on this trilogy that putting together a series bible seems like a bit of a joke.  Still, I could benefit from some organization at this point, given how many versions I’ve started of this #$@% book over the years, then changed things around, then changed them back, then changed them to something entirely different, etc.

My plan for this series bible is along the lines of a binder with separate tabs for the major characters, one section for lesser and bit characters, and a section for the settings – maybe broken up into places around the main city where most of the story takes place, and all the other cities, towns, battlefields, etc. that the characters come and go through.  Personally, since I draw, I like to do sketches of my characters and the places they spend most of their time, as visual stimulation and to keep things clear and consistent.  I’ll probably put some of those into the bible, if not on my bedroom wall next to my outline.  Even if you’re not artistically inclined, you can collect photos from books or magazines, postcards, online sources, etc. and use those for your visuals.

This being a fantasy novel, I’ll also include my ridiculously extensive notes on how the different magic styles work (there are five of ’em in this book, but thankfully I know better than to info dump all of that into the story!) and maybe flesh out my notes about the two religions that are prominent in the storyline.

I’m sort of approaching the series bible concept as a scrapbooking type project, only without the fancy paper and little cutouts of birthday cakes and stuff.  Although fancy paper isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a pattern that would be common on clothes or wallpaper in the story setting….  Hm….!