Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday storytelling

One of the children's book blogs I follow quoted the first lines of the new book by Lemony Snicket, The Lump of Coal. "The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories often feature miracles."
Holiday storytelling and miracles do indeed go together. From George Bailey seeing his town as if he had never been born to the Grinch's remarkable transformation from thief to benefactor, all's well at the end courtesy of a supernatural force. The character has learned his lesson and the viewer trusts the change is permanent.
For those of us writing about the ordinary world without a holiday theme, the character transformation from beginning to the end has to be just as dramatic and miraculous, sans the supernatural force. The challenge is to make a series of events which put transforming pressure on the character.
I have my 'series of events' as plot points on index cards on an 8-foot roll of paper hanging in my basement. I hope to spend some time this week tweaking those for the umpteenth time. They need to be logical and somehow able to bring about a miraculous change in my character by the end of the story.
Poor Sophie. She's really in for it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Characters in 3-D

In prepping to write this book, I read more books and articles on screenwriting, plotting, character arc and story craft than I can remember. As I try to put the advice of these pros into practice, I can only conclude one thing: I am on the learn-as-you-go plan. I learn from my mistakes and I make so many of them I must be learning a lot. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to take the good advice I am given and avoid the mistake in the first place. Ah, well.
I planned my protagonist, Sophie, as an obedient 14-year old German girl in 1938 and 39. Her character development included learning to step outside the rules of obedience in Nazi Germany and say 'No'. The farther I got into the story, the more I realized my main character needed more depth.
As a reader, characters that keep my interest are ones I can relate to, three-dimensional ones with positive and negative traits. Other than excessive obedience, Sophie didn't have any real character flaws, so I experimented with giving her one. I decided to give Sophie a secret, one that is threatening enough to keep her on her toes and keep the reader interested in how long the secret can be kept. When I did that, other characters sprang into action around her and reacted to her secret or their suspicions about it. The plot is growing itself around the secret and these 3-D characters like a vine around an arbor.
Yet another amazing series of discoveries on my journey.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas and novel to-do lists

Like everyone else, my to-do list is really long at this time of year. I have nothing wrapped, my cards aren't sent (heck, they aren't even written yet), my house isn't decorated and my tree isn't up.

To keep from being overwhelmed, I try to remember what I have done so far and do a bit more each day to prep for Christmas. I have made lists (and lost some), bought gifts and scanned in hundreds of old photos to make personalized calendars for elderly family members (this project sounds simpler than it is). I went to a concert, an office party and helped my Sunday School class choose a skit to perform. I got books autographed by author-friends to give young nieces and nephews. I baked a couple batches of cookies and haven't eaten them all yet.

In that same way, I need to remember what I have already accomplished in my pursuit of this novel. I changed the protagonist from a Sinti boy to a German girl who is a member of Hitler Youth. I rewrote 30 pages or so in first person and decided that was the correct POV. I spread my plot ideas out on long rolls of paper to help me visualize the structure of the story. I identified research questions and went to Munich to research the answers. And I wrote.

Like my to-do list of Christmas prep, I have a long way to go in writing this book. Maybe if I remember how far I've come, I can work on it a little each day and enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A digital recorder and BIC

Working full-time while writing a novel is challenging, to say the least. In my search for ways to manage the challenge, I have found two tools especially helpful. One is a hand-held digital voice recorder. The other is BIC.
I brought the recorder to Munich in October and used it each evening to record my general impressions and story ideas. In those few days, I recorded about 35 minutes of verbal rambling. Those audio files are now saved on my computer for reference as I need them. Now I keep the recorder in my car next to the ever-present coffee cup. When an idea or a plot twist hits me during my hours of driving each week, I can capture it before it vaporizes with the aggravation of finding a parking spot in South Side.
By far the most useful tool I have found is BIC. Butt In Chair. Putting a priority on writing. Giving it the attention I give my day job. Disciplining myself to show up and work on the manuscript every day. I think it was Woody Allen who said, "Eighty percent of success is just showing up."
I'm up to 61 pages. And counting.