Tools for Novel Writers: Character Interviews for, well… Character

Woman interviewing a guy in a ponchoThe Character Interview

Today’s topic… character interviews! They’re very useful! True! I hate character interviews! Also true!



Nutrition label with factsCharacter Factoids

I wrote a post a while back called “I Completed a Character Interview and didn’t Scream Once.” It’s about a method of defining characters that involves completing a long list of descriptive items.

While this was a useful process, for a writer like me (no smart cracks starting “Yeah, like a…” and ending in something rude, please), the process has its limitations. When I tried this for a new character, I had a shell of factoids, but not a living, breathing person. Working through the method for an existing character was helpful for record-keeping, but it didn’t give me a better idea of who she was.

After working on my not-so-great American novel for a while, I’ve found that a performing a nuts-and-bolts character interview is not a bad way to start out. It at least gives you something to work with and keeps you from making the oft-told error of giving Jane blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 75.

Character SouloidsSouls

On the other hand, if I want to know anything about the depths of a character – goals, heart’s desires, shaken or stirred – they have to live on the page for a while and interact with the story world around them. The facets of a character’s personality are born of my own subconscious and they take a while to come out. I am well aware of the excellent craft tomes that suggests methods for eliminating, or at least, abbreviating this process; I am reading them and ever hoping to improve. In fact…

I just finished reading one of those crafty books, Writing Fiction for Dummies and there’s a bit in there about character interviews I am finding very helpful. It’s the idea of determining a character’s values, ambitions and goal. These three points are infinitely more important than weight or mother’s paint color preferences. They get to what makes a character tick, which is a large part of what drives a story. And if you know one or two aspects, you can back up or go forward into the others. For example, if you know a character’s value is financial security, that might lead to his ambition to make lots of money and that ambition to his goal of being a corporate CEO.

After I’ve lived with a character on the page for a while, I still don’t necessarily have a conscious notion of what his values, ambitions, or goal might be, but what I do have is somebody I can have a conversation with. (All that time talking to imaginary friends is finally paying off.) Once that conversation gets under way, the characters speak for themselves. I do give a prod or some direction here and there, but mostly I just let them jabber.

Demon maskExample

Now I’ll bore you with an example. It’s part of the interview with my main bad guy, Gilles de Retz, a damned soul so bad he volunteered to be converted into a demon.

N: I need to know what you want, Retzy.

D: What I want? Is this not the thing obvious? De Retz must rise! De Retz must rule! It is the natural way.

N: The natural way? What are you talking about?

D: There is the natural order and of this are the people who are better and who must rule. De Retz is such a one, perhaps above them all.

N: How do you know you’re better than everybody else?

D: It is a thing one knows. How do you know that you are a narrow-eyed, pinch-faced idiot? You just know, oui?

N: Let’s do a quick check.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Mais oui!

N: Is there a conflicting value, I wonder?

D: I am very loyal to my great Lord Satan. Of all creation, he is the only one better than de Retz.

N: Really?

D: There is the good chance of this, at least.

N: That’s good That would give you a conflict between wanting to rule everything and being the loyal second banana.

D: What? De Retz is not a banana, nor any fruit!

N: Okay, simmer down. It’s just an expression. Let’s do this again.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else. Loyalty to Satan is paramount because he is the only being greater than de Retz.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else. Make Satan the primary ruler.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Here you have l’essence de de Retz, monsieur. I would not have thought you capable.

N: Okay, thanks, Retzy. I think.

I use the example of de Retz because he was relatively easy and so his interview was short. I’ve found so far that the good guys are more complex, which I think (hope) is good.

Put a Comment in the Weird Robot Head BoxComment box with mannekin head

I’m sure I’ll be learning and sharing more about all this as time goes on. Please leave your own genius thoughts on character interviews in a comment.

On-the-job Training with the Rewrite of the Rewrite

On-the-job Training

Two boys doing paperwork on the job

As regular readers of this space (a.k.a. people with too much spare time) already know, I’m working on the second draft of my first novel. Novel making is one of those jobs for which on-the-job training is a must, I’ve discovered, no matter how many craft books you read or workshops you go to before you start.

One thing my O.J.T. has taught me is that as you rewrite, you’ll discover yet more things that need attention, from miniscule nits of prose to Godzilla-like swaths of illogic. For me, correcting all these things at once would be maddening. To bring some sanity to the process, I’m rewriting in layers—more layers than I expected when I started out.


Layers of soil

When I began the rewrite, I thought I’d be correcting the faults in the storyline and fixing the prose at the same time. Well, kids, that ain’t happening. I find it’s all I can do to get something down that corrects the story problem at hand and vaguely resembles the English language. Later, in another layer of the rewrite, I’ll go back and fix the prose.

Now I have to decide if I’ll fix the prose before I fix the second bunch of story problems I have uncovered as I’ve been tinkering with the first batch. Among these are:

  • Proofreading matters, such as being consistent with the use of “leaped” or “leapt.” In a book with as much leaping about as this one, I need to pick one term and stick with it.
  • Story-world items, like the thin spots. Right now, they are sort of ragged holes in reality, but of late I’m thinking they should have a thin fabric over them that you have to tear through. I’ve got to figure out if that’s a good idea and, if it is, implement it.
  • Plot gaps. For example, I’ve got a character that I was going to eliminate, but now I want to keep him. The problem is, he disappears halfway through the book. How do I get him back in there?

So, now I’m looking at a rewrite of the rewrite, and then a rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite. And that’s just the second draft! What an adventure this writing project has turned out to be.

The Plan

A bulletin board with post it notes for a software plan

What does this have to do with you, if you’re a writer reading this and waiting patiently for something helpful? Well, what I’ve found is that it’s helpful to have a plan and keep working it. Mine is roughly this:

  1. Analyze and rework the beat sheet for improvements.
  2. Arrange a fix-it matrix.
  3. Work simultaneously through the fix-it matrix and changes from my critique group.
  4. Record changes needed for the rewrite of the rewrite (story fixes, etc., not prose) as I go along.
  5. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite.
  6. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite (prose).
  7. Then, depending on how ready I think the thing is, either start draft three or send it out to beta readers. I’m not sure which—that’s another part of O.J.T.


The riddler

Got any challenges with rewriting and clever solutions? Tell the world in a comment.

Rewriting Your Novel: Outlining and the Unexpected

dead end road sign

Sometimes, when I’m rewriting my novel, I run across a scene that won’t budge. I’ve got all my beat sheet notes laid out, I’ve got my fix-it matrix handy, my imagination and mood might even be in high gear, but everything I do turns into a dead end. At this point, I look at the clock. If my time is up, I breathe a sigh of relief, back everything up and cross my fingers for the next day. If I’ve still got time to work, I often suck it up and start outlining.

Yes, outlining, as in “1. 2. 3.” or, sometimes, even “1.A.i, 2.A.i.a…” The more stymied I am by a scene, the more detailed I tend to get.

Tinkertoy car

Outlining is great because it turns the scene from a mass of interweaving fibers you’ve got to pick through and arrange to a pile of tinkertoys, easy to pick up, simple to rearrange and assemble. When I outline, I can see the big chunks of action without worrying about dialogue, setting, description, character development, or any of that. That clarity allows me to arrange things much more rapidly than would working my way through the scene with just the beat sheet and fix-it sheet would.

So, once I have the thing all outlined to the nth degree, I start writing, stick to the plan and everything turns out perfectly, right?

Well, no. At least, not always.

Antique locomotive off the rails in the dirt

Somewhere along the way, events in the scene go astray of the outline. A character goes into a tunnel when you thought she was just going to cross the street. The bad guy appears earlier than you thought he would, riding a giant seagull instead of arriving in a cab. In the scene I was rewriting this morning, the lead and the love interest were supposed to fight their way out of a situation in a pretty straightforward fashion, but then they see a guy suspended from the ceiling by a hook and decide to get him down. (The novel’s set in Hell, so hook-guy isn’t dead.) Hook guy took things in a new direction, generating dialogue and action I never would have thought of while outlining.

I think this kind of writing miracle happens because the human brain can only do one thing at once. When I’m outlining, my mind is on doing just that, but once I start writing, if it’s going well, my imagination crowds out my carefully laid plans. The outline gets forgotten and stuff happens of its own accord.

woman in flexible yoga pose

So, if I’m going to deviate from it, is the outline pointless? I think not. With a difficult rewrite, the outline is a tremendous help in just getting started, because it’s much easier to start a journey if you have a map –it gives you confidence you can get where you’re going. Once I’m started, if the rewrite deviates from the outline in a good way, I simply revise it as necessary. If the writing goes haywire, I use the outline to ground myself and start on a revision.

The outline is a simple, flexible tool for your rewriting effort. It can un-stick you when you’re stuck, guide you when you’re lost, and record your success when you find the right path for a stubborn scene.

Cute wombat

Do you have any particularly effective outlining techniques? Do you think outlining is a waste of time? Let the world know in a comment. Thanks, and I’ll see you next time!

*”It” is a wombat treat. What kind of person do you think I am?

Rewriting Your Novel: The Deadly Game of “Compare Yourself”

The Rewriting Jungle

jungle to represent the rewriting jungle

So, there you are, the part-time novelist, maybe the nascent part-time novelist, and you’re working hard on your rewrite. It’s tough going, because, no matter how many craft books you’ve read, this is unknown territory, jungle territory no less, and you’re hacking your way through with a metaphorical machete. Despite your careful beat sheet revisions, you come to a point where the 83rd unexpected plot hole jumps out and surprises you. “Ohmigawd,” you think, “this is never going to work. I am wasting my time on what is possibly the worst travesty of literature ever committed in the English language.” So, realizing that you are getting a bit strung out, you take a break to relax and read a bit.

Which only makes things worse.

The Comparison Game

A sign that says stop the comparison game

Things get worse because you start comparing your work with whatever it is you’re reading. This happened to me the other day. Thinking novel #2 might be a lighthearted thriller, I thought I’d pick up One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. Well, not only is that sucker light, it’s tightly plotted, it has sparkling, well-defined characters, plenty of excitement and a ton of humor. My book stinks, I thought. It is nowhere near good as this.

Well, that was depressing, so I turned to my current audiobook, Shades of Gray, by Jasper Fforde. Oh, man, the world-building that guy has put into this book! It’s about a society in which people can only see one shade of color and the whole social pecking order is built around a colortocracy, with purple vision at the top and mere gray at the bottom. And that’s not all. There are roads made of living material, giant swans, libraries empty of everything but librarians… it’s amazing. The world in my book seems shabby by comparison.

Feh, I thought, feeling doomed.

Avoid Idiot Syndrome

An idiot with a paper bag mask on his head the mask is on fire

But then I thought some more, and realized I was being an idiot. (This often happens.) Here’s why:

  • The books I was reading are finished. They’ve already been through the whole rewriting process. If they aren’t better than my second draft, something’s wrong.
  • The authors of these books have had a lot more practice than I. Both have several published books, and I’m willing to bet they both wrote a lot before they got the first one in bookstores. I didn’t write much in my youth (or early middle age), so here I am. I will never make up the experience gap, unless I live to be 200. (I’ll get back to you on that.) Might as well accept the fact and do the best I can.
  • One for the Money and Shade of Gray are great, but they aren’t my novel. Even after it’s all polished up, my book is going to be utterly different. I’m a different author with a different vision, voice and skill set.
  • For a writer, reading is sitting at the feet of the masters. There’s much to be learned from Evanovich and Fforde if I can set my ego aside and see it. Can I plot as tightly as Evanovich? I can try. Can I make my world as thoroughly as Fforde? I can try. The more I try to emulate the virtues of good writers, the better my writing will become.

Armed with Spackle

Man spackling a wall

Having thought all this, I feel better. I can finish my novel and make it the best book I can write at this stage of my development. I can learn from other writers instead of falling into the deadly game of Compare Yourself. Now I can tackle my rewrite fresh, with some positive ideas instead of a head full of put-downs.

Have spackle; will fill plot holes.

a monkey with a gun demanding a comment

What do you do to lift yourself up when you feel your writing stinks? Leave your thoughts in a comment for the other three people reading this blog. Thanks!

Tools for Novel Writers: From Fix-it Sheet to Fix-it Matrix

Taming The Imps of Rewriting

If you want to pry the lid off a barrel of imps and dump it out on your shoes, start rewriting your novel. That’s how I feel today, at any rate. There’s not just one thing to do. You’ve got to revise words, fill in plot holes, make characters look, act and speak consistently and, oh, sweet Saint Syrup of the Waffle House, do a hundred other things. And when I say imps, I mean imps, not tasks, because they slide out from under you, escape your attention, pile up in a writhing disorganized mass and do their best to make you crazy as a June bug in, well, like, June. It’s enough to make you run away screaming.

But I want to promote myself from nascent novelist to stuck-with-it-and-totally-finished novelist. And I presume, since you’re reading this, so do you. Or maybe you’ve done it before and you want to do it again. Let’s not split hairs. Or hares, which would be messy.

What I mean is, here we are. So let us gird up our loins and tame the imps.

The New Rewriting Steps

First, obtain a beverage. This should be free of alcohol or any other potentially mind-bending substances. I prefer coffee and, no, caffeine is not a mind-bending substance, it is a vitamin. Look it up.

Second, sit down (or stand up, if you prefer) at your chosen tool of literary construction.

Third, assemble the following: manuscript, beat sheet and fix-it sheet. (I described the fix-it sheet in “Tools for Writers: Fix-it Notes and the Fix-it Sheet.”)

Fourth, get something to make a matrix with. (A matrix is a grid; I am obligated to call it a matrix because of my brief sojourn in Hell… oh, wait, that was MBA school.)

Fifth – here’s the fun part – make a new, improved, fix-it sheet. This one enables you to track your rewriting tasks against your chapters with much more ease than the fix-it sheet.

I made my NIFIS (New, Improved Fix-It Sheet) with Microsoft Excel. Here it is:

 New Improved Fix It Sheet for Rewriting

Imps are listed across the top, sections down the left side.

Creating Your NIFIS

Take all the things you need to fix as noted in the three documents gathered in the third step and go to town making columns. Then fill in your sections in the leftmost column, or list them a section at a time as you work on them. As I go through the list, I check stuff off or mark it n/a (not applicable). I like this because it gives me one cage for all the imps, is simple to track and allows me to make the tasks as general or specific as I like. “Beat Sheet Changes” and “In-Line Fixes,” for example, are high level tasks; I track the details in the beat sheet for the former (duh) and in the manuscript for the latter (by just erasing the in-line fixes). On the other hand, “Fix-it: More Factories” is a reminder to include more of Satan’s weapons factories in the setting throughout the book, a pretty specific item.

Goofs of the Past

To give you an idea why I went this route, check out what happened with the fix-it sheet when I started revisions:

 Old Fix it Sheet for Rewriting

I still love the fix-it sheet for keeping track of issues as you go along, but it doesn’t really provide a good way of tracking where the tasks have been done or if they’re not applicable to a chapter. I also found myself resorting to symbols to indicate if changes were noted at specific places in the manuscript, were issues permeating the whole thing, etc. That was pretty clumsy. Sure, you could do it this way, but it would be a mess and I’m kind of an organization freak when it comes to the writing (in case you hadn’t figured that out already, based on this post).

I may revise my rewriting tools again sometime. I’m learning as I go and the novel, the tools and novelist-me are all still works in progress.

Bonus for the Curious

If you noticed the tabs “Arcs” and “Hair References” at the bottom of the NIFIS, check back here soon for a post explaining what those are all about.

Leave a Comment

If anybody has a better way of keeping their rewrite life in order, please let me know in a comment. Thanks!

Writing – or Re-writing – Your Novel’s Beginning

A little plant represents starting off right, as in your novelStarting Your Novel Right

If you work hard and eat your vegetables, oh part-time novelist, you’ll eventually find yourself in the position of rewriting the first draft of your novel. All kinds of interesting things happen, like, for instance you discover that your beginning needs to be gutted and rebuilt.

Argh. Such is the position in which I find myself at present.

Overdrawn at the Brain Bank

I love my original beginning, but it’s a prologue. A corking scene, to be sure, but prologues tend to get you excited about one thing and then you have to switch to another – like the main character, in my case. The thing to do, per my reading in the craft literature and in actual literature-literature, is to start the book off with an engaging – no, riveting – scene that will introduce the protagonist and make everybody fall over themselves caring about him.

I made a few tries at said riveting scene and found I was overdrawn at the cleverness bank.

Ideas for Starting Your Novel

What’s a writer to do? Well, swipe something. Duh.

Idea 1: A Hint or Weirdness

Put a hint of weirdness in the first sentence and show your lead in action. Swiped from Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore.

“While magic powder was sprinkled on the sidewalk outside, Samuel Hunger moved around his office like a machine, firing out phone calls, checking computer printouts, and barking orders to his secretary.”

Here’s a guy working in an office. But wait! What about that magic powder? The weirdness sucks you in, but then the author makes you wait to find out about it while you learn about the main character for a few pages. Curiosity keeps you hooked and weirdness sets up the events to come.

Idea 2: Curiosity, then Chronology

Just start at the beginning and go from there. Swiped from Inferno, by Niven and Pournelle.

“I thought about being dead. I could remember every silly detail of that silly last performance… Call me Allen Carpentier. It’s the name I wrote under, and someone will remember it.”

The first-person narrator starts with a curious statement about being dead – enough to get your interest – and then goes on to explain how he died. From there, he goes into a chronological reminiscence of his adventures. This book could have started at “Call me Allen Carpentier,” but the first paragraphs about being dead hook your curiosity much more easily.

Idea 3: A Foreword

Start with a brief, intriguing essay on a thematic element, or something. Swiped from Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.

“This is a story about the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hid and deciev, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.”

You’d probably better be a well-established author like Moore before you do this, and not only that, but a writer capable of engaging an audience without immediately resorting to big emotions or derring-do (the two don’t always go together, you may have noticed). By the time he’s finished talking about blue, you’re convinced of its supernatural nature and itching to find out how it figures into a whole big novel. I’ll let you know how this works out when I’m on, like, my twentieth novel.

Idea 4: Action, Jackson… Contrasted with Quiet

Get things moving in a big way and keep them that way. Swiped from “Afraid,” by J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn (who are the same person).

There are a couple of paragraphs in which Konrath sets a quiet fishing scene to begin. These provide contrast for what quickly follows: “The zip of his baitcaster unspooling and the plop of the bait hitting the water were the only sounds he’d heard for the last hour. Until the helicopter exploded.”

What makes this beginning work is the contrast between the fishing and the ‘copter exploding. Just listen to the sounds. There’s a “plop” of bait and then a “kaboom” of helicopter fireball. The action ramps up quickly after this and never lets up.

Idea 5: In Medias Res (“In the midst of things”)

Start somewhere after the actual beginning of the story’s events. You can back up later and fill the reader in on what came before. Swiped from “Letters from Hades” by Jeffery Thomas.

“On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis. It was during a break between classes, though that should not be taken to mean a break for rest.” After the intriguing first sentence, we start witnessing the fun existence of a Hell newbie through the narrator’s eyes. Not much later we find out the narrator is keeping a diary and the discussion of how that came about creates a framework for discussion of days one through four. The immediacy with which you’re taken into the story makes this work, as it does for most other tales begun in medias res.

This is far from an exhaustive list of ways to start a novel, but it’s Boxing Day, the house is quiet, and I’m ready for a beer. So there.

If you have a way of starting a novel that floats your boat, let the world know in a comment. See you next time.

I Met A Passionate Writer

Become terminally passionate... by Louography on Flickr. Link: About a Writer

I was going to write a post about a handy spreadsheet I figured out for tracking rewrite progress and maybe throw in some thoughts about the random discoveries you make during the editing process. I still think I’m going to do that, but this week I can’t, because I met Lauren.


Lauren is a young woman I met at a place called Gilgal, where women go to recover from addiction and abuse which often – surprise! – go hand in hand. I don’t know Lauren’s whole story, but I do know she’s trying to put her life back together after a significant amount of time spent dancing with Dr. Feelgood.

Lauren is bright-eyed, personable and very curious about the world. I think this might be because she hasn’t really spent much time recently in the land of the mundane. We got to talking a little about the Internet, and she was not sure at first what Google was. That’s how out of touch she’s been.

A Passion for Writing

So what does this have to do with writing?

Well, we’re sitting there eating some pizza and chewing the fat, and she tells me she’s a writer. When she was ten, she told me, she wrote a book called “Killer Fleas” (if I remember correctly) about a flea that gets exposed to lawn-growth chemical and grows to huge size. Mayhem ensues.

Along the way, Lauren told me, she lost her writing because of drugs, but now, in a safe environment that fosters recovery and spiritual growth, her gift has returned in the form of rap poetry. She recited one for the rest of the women and our group of visitors. I wish I could quote it for you; it was a moving piece about finding your strength.

I think if you journey through a long dark, like Lauren has, and found your art again, you are truly blessed by God, the universe, human nature, whatever you want to call it. And you’re also passionate. Lauren was perky while we were talking, but when her poetry started to flow out of her she was glowing.

Make An End To Complaining

A lot of writers, particularly us part-time ones, complain about the obstacles that stand between us and our art. Our families keep us too busy! Work is too demanding! I can’t get the quiet I need!

Look, folks: we need to stop whining and lay hold of the passion that started us down this road in the first place. The everyday stumbling blocks most of us face are NOTHING (YES I AM SHOUTING!) compared to what Lauren has been through, is going through.

Lauren is very busy rising from the ashes.

Yet, Lauren writes.

Can we do less?