Saturday, August 18, 2012

The voice journal

When asked to recommend books on writing, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell often comes up at conferences, at workshops, and on blogs. I finally read it last week, and many of his 'strategies, tactics, and exercises' resonated with me. One of the most intriguing was his idea of a 'voice journal' for each character.

He advocates a stream-of-consciousness journal of a character's speech, documenting his/her description of self in whatever form it takes. The list format I used for my characters, bullet points describing traits and likes/dislikes, fell short in guiding me to full characterizations. So I embraced Mr. Bell's advice, closed my eyes, and let Sophie speak through my fingertips.In minutes, this is what I had:

Hi, my name is Sophie Adler. I’m fourteen and I live with my Mutti, my Papa, and my brother Klaus in a 5 room apt over our family’s bakery in Munich. I always wanted a pet, but my parents said no; since we have the bakery right downstairs it wouldn’t do to have an animal prowling around. I talked them into a cat, to act as a mouser in the alley behind our house. Her name is Skittle, because of the way she scurries away whenever someone tries to pick her up. Cats are that way; they want you when they want you, and when they don't want you they skitter away...

Maybe I like Skittle so much because she’s stealthy, living her life fully and completely as a cat, attached but not attached, watching and observing and waiting for opportunities to be part of the family, part of the group, but really a loner inside. She's like me... Quiet, observant, choosing who to reveal self to, who to avoid, scurrying away when cornered, making her own life in front of people and having a separate life they know nothing about.

The fascinating part about this? I've been writing/revising Sophie's story for several years, and I never had a pet in her story. And yet the prospect of a cat as her self-portrait is apt,and one that gives me whole new ways to frame her character and her story.

I feel refreshed; creating a voice journal for each of my characters will help me establish them more fully. That'll make my rewrites more fun.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Next time, I'll ...

There will be a second novel for me - the story is already spinning into shape in my mind, on Pinterest, in some basic notes on my voice recorder and on paper. I'll have some time off this fall,so I'll probably start pulling it together soon. But before I actually put pen to paper (or in reality, create a Word document,) I'll apply the lessons I learned from the convoluted journey of writing Risking Exposure.

What I'll do differently:

1. Put more flesh on my characters before I start writing. I'll write a biography of each character before I start - where/when they were born, schooling, friends, family structure, likes/dislikes, beliefs, quirks, personality type, traits, emotional make-up, intelligence, problem solving ability, strengths, weaknesses. That's far more detail in stone than I did before, and hopefully that'll cut down my need for extensive re-thinking of characters after the novel is done.

2. Put those characters in my setting and see how they act before I write a thing.
Each of us responds to circumstances differently. That's what makes us interesting. That's also what makes readers care about fictional characters and ultimately, what draws us back as readers. A good plot drives a story but a book, a memorable one at least, is about characters we care about.

3. Write out the story question and the pitch BEFORE I outline to make sure I stay focused. This means I'll need to UNDERSTAND my characters and what they want before I start writing. Again, this is essential to writing right.

4. Then I’ll outline. KM Weiland has written a well-received book on outlining and will soon offer a Writers Digest Workshop as well. Good timing for me to get the directed help I need.

5. After that's all done, I'll write. I'll let you know how that works for me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What I've done right

That list of learn-as-I-go mistakes begs the obvious question: Did I do anything right?

Of course I did. Give myself a virtual pat on the back.

1. I kept my original protagonist, the setting, and her problem. Sophie, Munich, and the fate of the disabled in Nazi Germany are the foundation of my story, and I haven't strayed from that.

2. I researched my setting and her problem before, during, and after my first draft. I've learned more about Nazi Germany than I ever wanted to know, but the best research I did was tactile - I went to Munich with Katie and walked where Sophie would have walked, explored and smelled and tasted until I felt her heartbeat and heard her voice. I went to the Library of Congress and wore white gloves to examine actual era photographs. I opened the crackling yellowed pages of Nazi newspapers and read first-hand reports of the parade at the end of the novel, saw the way it was portrayed to the people, and photographed columns of text to translate at home.

3. I decided to tell the story in Sophie's first-person voice. As soon as I did, she began to speak.

4. I decided the story I'd originally planned was too cumbersome, too complicated, and the fantasy elements felt forced. I ditched the fantasy and multiple story lines in favor of a straight historical fiction story. Honestly, I still like those fantasy elements but they don't belong in this story.

5. I didn’t set a time frame for finishing the book, just a time frame of writing for 10 hours per week.

6. I allowed myself many many rewrites and didn’t hang onto beloved words, scenes, or characters. But I saved the various versions of my story as it evolved, and I plan to use some of my favorite deleted characters and scenes in future stories.

7. I read a lot about writing, attended the Dietrich Theater Writers Group regularly as a reader and critiquer, went to writing SCBWI workshops and conferences, and read well-written books. As I surrounded myself with writers and works that shine, I absorbed.

8. I took in everyone’s advice. But I took to heart only the advice that resonated with me. I'm not writing this book by committee. It's mine and Sophie's.

9. I loved Sophie and committed myself to telling her story, regardless of how many rewrites it took.

10. I kept practicing, kept writing. I didn’t see changes in my writing skill week to week, but gradually, I have improved.

11. I haven’t let setbacks or (many many) rejections get me down for the long term. When I'm frustrated or stuck, I put the work aside for a couple weeks. That freshens my perspective and increases my objectivity. Then I can tackle it again.

Next up, and the last of this series - what I'll do different next time.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 3

Even though I read how-tos and took a couple courses on how to write a novel, I still floundered. A lot.

More of what I realized once I got going:

11. The novel writing course(s) provided general guidance, but no one held my hand to help me navigate this uncharted territory.

12. Revising a finished novel when my characters needed work was REALLY hard.

13. Writing historical fiction took a lot of research, before and during the writing process. As I revise, the research is ongoing. Good thing I'm still interested in that era.

14. Writing fantasy required me to create an entire world complete with rules of operation. The process was more complex than I thought it would be.

15. Writing multiple story lines which converge took far more planning than writing a single story line with a single protagonist.

16. Writing a single story line with a single protagonist was hard enough.

17. Writing novel-length fiction was nothing like writing articles or like writing non-fiction. And most of the rules my English teachers taught didn’t apply, especially when writing dialogue.

18. I had trouble staying focused on the story. I should have identified, in words out the outset, my story question and my pitch.

19. I didn’t know how to write fiction. My ‘deleted scenes’ and ‘early versions’ files are far bigger than the finished novel. And the novel still needs work.

But I'm learning as I move forward, and believe it or not, I still enjoy the process and the challenge. I've gotten to a point where I can acknowledge what I did right, so that's up for tomorrow.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 2

So there I was, with some basic ideas, characters, and a visual display of my outline. I'd just start writing and the story would gel, right? Like the premise of driving at night - you can only see as far as your headlights allow, but as you move forward, it's always just enough.
Right? Wrong. Reality check.

What I realized once I got going:
1. The short articles I’d written had all been non-fiction. I’d never created a character before.
2. The characters I created were cardboard.
3. I’d never written a plot before.
4. The plot I wrote dragged.

5. I had no idea where to really begin my story and wrote about 10 different opening scenes. Most occurred earlier in the story than the previously attempted opening.
6. Writing a scene from a single sentence on an index card may have worked if the characters had been fleshed out. Mine hadn’t been, and they didn’t get flesh until I started writing about them. Then they got mouthy and demanded changes to the plot I’d planned for them.
7. Writing the plot on index cards might have worked as well, but again, those darn characters took over the action and I had to do their bidding.
I took down the index cards and their long paper framework and burned them.
8. I tried plan B, to write the story ‘organically’, just let it grow from the seed of the story setting and problem.
9. Writing organically takes me a really long time, because it’s mostly false starts and wrong turns.
10. It’s hard for me to discipline my mind and keep it on track when I write organically. I need the structure of an outline, and my outline was crap.

Tomorrow - more of what I realized once I got going.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What I learned during my ten thousand hours of practice, Pt. 1

Malcolm Gladwell famously said that the key to success in any task is logging ten thousand hours of practice. His belief is that perseverance pays off, and I see the logic in that. It jives with the tongue-in-cheek answer to the NY tourist question, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice."

There's an acronym for this concept in the writing world: BIC, butt-in-chair. So as I began to write a novel, I knew I'd need to put in some serious time before I'd have a story worth reading.

I've learned much during these hours in the chair, and over the next few days, I'll share some of the insights I've gained.

As with any new project, I started with a baseline of ideas, assumptions, and skills.
What I thought when I started my novel:

1. I had a good idea for a setting and a problem.

2. I had a couple basic characters and spent a little time thinking about them.

3. That was enough to get me started; I’d work out the details as I went.

4. I wrote an idea for each scene on an index card and stuck them in sequence on a long roll of paper. All I had to do was take down a card, write that scene, and move on to the next.

5. Writing this novel would be like writing the short articles I’d written; it would just take me longer.

6. I’d start at the beginning of the story and write straight through until the ending.

7. I’d write a historical fantasy with multiple story lines and multiple protagonists converging into a climactic whole.

8. I enrolled in a novel-writing course when I started, so that would help me work through the bumps.

9. I knew how to write fiction because I liked to read fiction.

Tomorrow: What I realized once I got going.