Monday, September 29, 2008

Characters Who Want: Passionate or Spoiled?

Nope. Sorry. Can’t do it.

Although I’ve been telling you that to get published in today’s market you need a character who wants something desperately, I’ve never been able to do it. I spend so much time with my characters during the creation and writing of my novels that I have to like them or at least tolerate them. Passionate characters, like Scarlett O’Hara, who go after their goals with no thought for anyone else, might be interesting to you, but to me they are spoiled brats and intolerable.

Perhaps if I could have overcome this prejudice and followed my own advice, I’d have found a publisher by now. Unfortunately for me, all of my heroes have been reactive rather than proactive, at least in the beginning. Seems like I’m going to be making the same mistake again, but I have to go with what feels right.

I just don’t see Chip, the hero of my work in progress, as a driven fellow. Except for his problem with his mother, he seems to be satisfied with his life. He does have a long-term goal: he would like to buy a ranch or farm and take care of old and unwanted animals from zoos and circuses, but since this goal is negated when the world ends, it can’t be a desire that drives him throughout the book.

Still, there has to be a unifying characteristic that is with him throughout all of his adventures. He is distrustful of women because of his mother (and perhaps because of past relationships). That distrust could be his motivating factor, until at the end he finds a woman he can trust. It would also suit his temperament.

In The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Linda N. Edelstein, PhD, lists styles of behavior and explains the psychology of each. Reviewing the list, I can see that Chip does not have an adventurer’s personality, nor is he bossy, conventional, creative, a conformist, dependant, eccentric, a fall guy, fearful, flamboyant, hyper, a loner, a man’s man, passive-aggressive, a show-off, a victim.

But he is resilient. According to Edelstein, this means he has the ability to recover from losses and disappointments. He is generally happy and productive. He can face his problems and cope with adversity. He is an effective problem solver. He has high ethical standards and takes responsibility for his own life. He has a sense of humor. He is interested in others as well as himself and maintains a strong support network. In the extreme, his independence can become an inability to depend on others, which goes along with his distrust of women.

Maybe he is not an exciting and passionate character, but he sounds like someone I could live with for the next year while I am writing the novel.

Of course, this isn’t all there is to him. He does have special strengths and weaknesses that cause the plot to thicken at times, but I don’t know yet what they are.

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Throwing a Character in a Plot and Turning Up the Heat

Plot without characters to give it life is merely a recitation of activity, and characters without plot to give them meaning go nowhere. The best way to learn about your characters is to throw them into the plot and see what they do, what they say, and what they think. In this bizarre merry-go-round called fiction writing, however, characters drive plot, which means that you need to know who your characters are before you can begin figuring out where they are going.

I have always had a general idea of who my main character was before I started writing a novel, but I have never created a history or a full-bodied character sketch for him or her beforehand. Although the writing experts say such a sketch is necessary, I never saw the point in generating material I would not use. But since I am getting nowhere with my latest writing venture, I thought I would try it. See where it leads.

I decided the hero is going to be a man. Originally I had planned on a woman, but as I said in an earlier post, the man has the stronger story and the more poignant choices to make, so he will make a better point-of-view character. For purposes of this sketch, I will call him Chip.

What I know so far about Chip's history is that his mother is overbearing and interfering. Though she lives only an hour away, she came to visit and stayed for months. He hates himself for being a wimp and not kicking her out, but she is his mother, after all, and she has no one but him - his father ran out on them when Chip was in grade school. The story begins (and the world begins to end) the night Chip asks his mother to leave.

Chip is thirty-three, the owner of a pet store, and currently without a girlfriend. Perhaps he is leery of a relationship, not wanting to end up with someone like his mother. Other than that, I'm not sure I want to get into his background. Do we need to know where he went to school? What his childhood was like? What his failures and lost opportunities were? Do we care about his politics, his beliefs, his travels, his ex-girlfriends? Seems boring to me, and I can't see that it makes any difference when the world is ending.

Most books on writing say that an interesting and enduring character must have a strong desire, a goal he will do anything to achieve, but do Chip's present desires really matter when everything is about to change? To begin with, Chip's only desire is to get his mother out of his apartment, though later he will want desperately to escape the human zoo where he has been incarcerated. Is that enough to propel the story? Or do I need to give him another desire, one that he has at the beginning and that follows him throughout his adventures, until at the end he gets either what he wants or what he deserves?

I'll have to think about that and get back to you.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Unblocking Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a term, like chronic fatigue syndrome, that covers a multitude of ills. Sometimes it means an inability to begin writing that book, sometimes it means a stoppage in the flow of words or ideas, sometimes it means a lack of desire to write. It is only a critical condition when the blocked writer is on a deadline, otherwise time or a change in writing habits can help.

For me, writer’s block generally means that I have taken a false turn in the story, that I’m heading in the wrong direction. This often happens in the middle of the book when all the ideas that I had in the beginning have been used up, and I need to fill a hole in the plot. The only thing I can do is go back through the story, make sure every action is motivated, every scene necessary, every character operating at his or her full potential. Usually I can find where I went wrong. After I change it, I continue in the proper direction with renewed vigor.

My latest attempt at writing, however, stalled at the beginning. I wrote three and a half pages almost a year ago, then nothing. It seems ludicrous that I could have taken a wrong turn so early, but I must have, otherwise I would be well on my way to finishing the novel. Ironically, it was supposed to have been fun to write, a take-off on the apocalyptic fantasies that have been so popular in recent years. Then why is it so hard to get going?

Perhaps the story isn’t worth writing. Perhaps my characters aren’t strong enough. Perhaps I begin with too many characters or too few.

I decided that the story is worth writing. I have a great hook, high stakes, and a delicious ending. So the problem has to be in the characters. I was going to tell the story from two points of view — a man and a woman who come together in the end — but the problem seems to be that one of their viewpoints is superfluous. Showing both of their reactions to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it would be repetitive, like those lawyer books that rehash the entire story during the courtroom scene. Yawn.

The man has the stronger story and will have to make some of the more poignant decisions (for example, he is a devout vegetarian who will be forced to kill to feed those dependant on him) so today I deleted the woman. She didn’t even have a chance to come to life before I had to do her in. Poor thing. May she rest in peace.

Now maybe I can get going on the book.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beginning to Write a Novel

I finished my fourth novel a year ago, and I feel as if I should be writing another one. After all, a writer writes, right?

I have a synopsis and a great hook, but I just can’t get into the story. I don’t know who my characters are or why anyone, including me, should like them. I am bored by the minutiae of their ordinary lives and I want to jump right into the extraordinary times that are coming, but I need the preamble to set up the story. I suppose I could start with the last chapter as Margaret Mitchell did for Gone With the Wind, and work my way toward the beginning, but my linear mind would rebel. Or I could start with a violent scene to get my adrenaline going. Books that start with violence sell better than ones that begin more passively, anyway.

I tell myself that, good or bad, I should just get the story down on paper and worry about rewriting later. Then I remember that it’s hard for me to find any words, so they need to be good.

Starting to write a novel is always difficult, even for professionals like Mary Higgins Clark who have been writing for decades. She admitted in an interview that it never gets easier. But still she writes.

Perhaps if I were writing for publication as she does, I would be motivated. There is nothing like the threat of having to return an advance to keep a writer churning out the words. I am not writing for publication yet, and I already have four unpublished novels packed away in the dusty reaches of my computer. Adding another seems pathetic.

So what’s the alternative? Blogging. It satisfies my writing urge, the posts are short and don’t require a big commitment of my time, and I don’t need to create interesting characters.

Characters are the key to a good beginning. Once you know who they are and what they want, they can help drive the story. But the only way to learn who they are and what they want is to write them. It’s a vicious circle.

For now, I’ll stick to blogging.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Art of Procrastination

It seems as if lately the only art I’m practicing is the art of procrastination.

There’s no art in going about your daily life and telling yourself you don't have time to write. The art is in pursuing other activities to keep from going about your daily life and telling yourself you don't have time to write.

Thus far in my procrastination, I have:

1. Read several books about writing.

2. Invited a dozen authors to guest host my other blog. Some ignored me; some accepted. I don't know why any author, particlularly those just starting out, would pass on the opportunity. Publicity is publicity, right? If you are a published author (self-published is fine) and would like to guest host Bertram's Blog, let me know.

3. Left comments on a couple of online writing forums.

4. Joined a writing discussion group (this is in addition to my own writing discussion group.)

5. Entered a writing contest even though I said I would never enter another one.

6. Researched book marketing for when/if I get published.

7. Signed up for Facebook, MySpace, and Shelfari. Wandered around the sites trying to figure out what to do with them (still have no clue). If you belong to any of these sites, please add me as a friend so I can procrastinate more!

8. Published an article about What Your Car Color Means on Squidoo.

9. Sent emails to a couple of epals.

10. Started this blog.

It would probably be easier just to sit down and write the novel, but where’s the art in that?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Finding a Perfect First Line

I’m sitting here trying to come up with a witty first line for my new novel, something that will immediately catapult me into the story, but all I can think of is Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. I remember watching him struggle for the perfect first line, the perfect word until I wanted to scream “Skip the first line! Start anywhere! Or at least dig out a thesaurus.” But that was before I started to write, and now I find myself doing the same thing.

Odd that first lines are so important, yet few set the mood or do anything else they’re supposed to. And fewer still are memorable. Probably the best known line is “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it’s also considered to be the worst first line in history. Why? It seems evocative to me, and though it’s supposed to be redundant, even city people should know that stormy nights are not always dark. Maybe that’s why I haven’t yet found a publisher. Maybe I just don’t get it.

How about this for a first line? First and last, actually. As the ax descended toward her head, the young mother struggled in vain to free her hands from the nylon rope. It might be a good hook, but if doesn’t tell us who she is, why someone killed her, or why we should care.

Axes don't have anything to do with the story I want to write. I’ve always wanted to write the story of a love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with sensitivity and great wisdom. Unfortunately, as one agent pointed out, I have a matter-of-fact writing style, little talent, and no wisdom. So all I can do is put words to the page one at a time, hope for the best, and thank heavens I can always rewrite later.

Now if I can only think of that first perfect line.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Boldness Has Power and Magic in It

All too often inexperienced writers tiptoe through their novels, letting major events -- fistfights, gunplay, murders, betrayals -- take place off-page. It's much easier to let characters emote afterward than for the writer to take the time and trouble to tackle the action scene. I know I have passed on opportunities to create such scenes, thinking the characters' reactions all-important, but I forgot one thing: readers need to experience the drama.

Sometimes it's hard to find the confidence to bring such complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise an action scene, but the only way to learn is to plunge headfirst into action. Write it fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites, so there is no reason to hold back.

By jumping into situations that test your characters and your writing ability, you can give your stories drama that stands apart from the common. Writing is an adventure and we need to boldly go where our story takes us.

Goethe wrote, “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

I’ve dreamed my new novel. Now it’s time for me to begin writing it. Perhaps this bold step will bring, if not genius and power, then magic.