9 Ideas for Resolving A Character Crisis

Chinese character for crisis. Danger plus Opportunity.The adventure in novel-writing continues. This week I finished part two of four, which was great. Unfortunately, this accomplishment is overshadowed by a minor literary crisis I ran into last week, courtesy of my writing group.

My writing group is terrific—we read each other’s stuff, mark it up and tell each other what we think is right and wrong about a piece in a straightforward, but supportive way. One of the folks observed that he didn’t see any particular reason to like, or root for, my main character. The others tended to agree.

Why, he asked, should I like this guy?

I couldn’t answer. Minor literary crisis! So what are some steps I can take?

I’m thinking out loud here. Here’s what I’ve come up with, in no particular order because, honestly, I don’t know in what order to do these things yet.

  • Look at pictures. I can get on Google Images, Flickr, etc. and look for photos of guys who strike me as Colin-like. Seeing an image might spark some ideas.
  • List characteristics. A while back, I completed a list of characteristics for Colin. I can review that. I can also write another one.
  • Try situations. One thing that works for me is to put the character into a random situation—standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, fighting a zombie—whatever comes to mind. Something about dreaming up the situation and seeing how the character reacts seems to break loose my intuitive knowledge about him.
  • Think about reasons a person is liked. I’m trying to make this guy likable, or at least supportable. What do people like? What makes a person interesting and attractive? How do some of those things fit in with the person I think Colin is?
  • Research. I have some favorite how-to resources. I’ll go back to them and see what advice they have.
  • Stare at the ceiling. I wrote a post about this not long ago. Sometimes just letting the mind wander around a creative problem on its own will produce solutions, or at least hints.
  • Enlist the universe. There’s a whole interconnected web of being of which I am a part (setting aside metaphysical questions of who or what “I” really am). Through prayer and meditation I can bring the subtle power of that whole thing to bear on the problem. I know this isn’t for everybody, but it works for me.
  • Let go. It’s all to easy for me to get something like this between my teeth and shake it like a terrier. Then I’ll shake it some more, and then some more until my head pops off. By that time, I can’t see the problem or the solution for all the worry in the way. If I can remember to relax and allow this to happen, rather than trying to make it happen, I’ll be a lot farther along.
  • See the opportunity. I do have a little crisis here, but I can already see how rewriting Colin’s first section or two might enable me to solve some story problems that have cropped up down the line. I’m reminded of the old cliché about the Chinese character for “crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “danger” and—you guessed it—“opportunity.” So there’s hope for me yet! And for my main character.
Advertisements

Staring at the Ceiling

Announcement: I’ve decided to start posting only once a week, on Wednesdays, starting today. I hope this move will give me more time to write better fiction, which I hope you’ll one day enjoy. Thanks!

Baby staring at the ceiling“That’s not work… staring at the ceiling!”

So a radio panel show participant I heard once characterize his wife’s evaluation of his profession—not so much actual toil, but looking off into space, if not toward the ceiling then in some other equally lackadaisical direction. I wonder, if someone took the trouble to do a study, how much of a writer’s at-the-desk time would consist of scribing prose and how much would consist of staring, or chewing a pencil, or something else thoughtful.

Since I’ve reached a place in the Thin Spots project where I’m crafting scenes from scratch again and not re-working old material into the revised plan (yay!), I’ve come to think the percentage of ceiling-staring time is pretty high.

Words usually just don’t come roaring out of my head onto the page, because they’ve got to be preceded by mental imagery. Even though I’ve got my descriptive paragraphs all written and my scene sheets all neatly assembled, I still have to figure out precisely what’s going to happen in the moment-to-moment life of the novel. If a beastie is going to fling something at the hero (Colin), what’s it going to be? A spear? A cassava melon? Is Colin then going to get hit, roll, or dodge? If he dodges, does he go left or right? I could go on, but you would probably hate that, so I won’t. You get the idea.

The periods of staring come into play when I’m trying to work out all those details. For me, it’s a process of envisioning the action and hearing the dialogue in my imagination. Part of the scene will play through my head like a movie trailer and then I’ll write down the pictures, allowing the magic of wordplay to change them as it will. Then I’ve got a platform to stand on with one foot while I reach out into empty space with the other, feeling for the next bit of the scene.

This process requires me to avoid hurry. If I’m in a dither about getting to a certain point or spitting out a quota of words in my allotted hour, I’ll be too focused on putting words on paper to allow sufficient time for the meat of the scene to form in my brain. When that happens, I either get little written at all or the writing meanders all over without getting much of anywhere.

I hope I’ve now shown how important staring at the ceiling (or at anything) is to writing fiction. So, friends, if someone says to you that all you’re doing is staring into space, print out this post and show it to them. They will read it and be utterly convinced, or they will crumple it into a ball and fling it at you. In the latter case, I suggest a dodge; that seems to work for me, most of the time.

10 Bogus Reasons for Not Writing Your Novel

No ExcusesWhen I look through the wonder that is the Amazon Kindle store and other online literary emporia, I’m flabbergasted by the number of novels out there. After I’ve been flabbergasted for a while, I have a cup o’ joe to calm down a bit. Then I start thinking about something else—the number of novels that aren’t there, but could be. These poor little guys are in people’s heads as concepts, in desk drawers as partially-finished manuscripts to be picked up one day, in city dumps or recycling centers where they were tossed by folks who just gave up.

Do you have a novel that’s languishing for lack of attention? You have your reasons for neglecting it, of course… but maybe they’re bogus! Check this list and see if any bogus reasons are yours.

10. You Don’t Have Talent. If you’ve got the yen to write a novel at all, it’s a sign you have some kind of talent. Maybe it’s a talent for pretty prose, or artful plotting, or just sitting back and letting rip with a good yarn. But you won’t know until you try, will you? Talent needs to be developed. If you have that urge to novelate, the ability to generate that emotion is your talent. Nurture that by writing and it may develop into more and greater talents.

9. Your Story Ideas Aren’t Good Enough. Good enough for who? If your ideas are good enough to keep you entertained while you’re writing, that’s all you need. Nothing will sustain you through the long course of a novel like enthusiasm for the project for its own sake. And who is telling you the ideas don’t cut it? Some long-dead teacher? A parent? Tell these ghosts in your head, “Thank you for your opinion. I embrace it and now I let it go, because you are just a ghost in my head, and I can have a big glass of wine when I’m done and you can’t—ha, ha, ha!” And then write.

8. It’s Self-Indulgent. We’re so often taught that doing something for ourselves is selfish and bad, especially if it doesn’t result in money or a mowed lawn or something. Let me remind you that the seventh habit of highly effective people (Stephen Covey) is to Sharpen the Saw; that is, to get away from the grind and do something that enriches your brain. That’s what writing does. Besides, if writing makes you happier, isn’t that good for everybody around you? You bet it is.

7. You Need a Certain Environment. Okay, I know we’re all tired of hearing about her, but J.K. Rowling wrote at least the first Harry Potter book in several Edinburgh cafes . I know one author who, when her three kids were all tiny, would lock herself in the bathroom, put her pad on the toilet seat and write while the three little ones were banging on the door. If you try, you can write almost anywhere; maybe not as much or as well as you like, but you can do it.

6. You Have Writer’s Block. I believe that writer’s block is real. It’s happened to me, in a small way, when I tried to write everything beautifully the first time around, or when I tried to write for somebody else. It’s also happened to me when I didn’t have an adequate plan for what I was writing. If I have a plan, I don’t write myself into a corner and get blocked trying to figure out how to write myself out. Once I gave up perfection, started writing to please myself, and started planning everything, my blocks went away.

5. Your Novels Always Flame Out. We’re back to planning again. Your novels flame out because they have no plan, so they get out of control and crash into the trackless wastes of Not-Written-Land. As a seat-of-the-pants, non-planning writer, I have flamed out on at least three novels. These days, I use a plan and I am farther along that I’ve ever gotten before. What’s more, I’m confident I’ll finish. Make that flight plan, gang, and you won’t crash.

4. A Novel is Too Big. I wholeheartedly agree. A novel is too big for any sane human to take it on. All those characters, settings, events, details… it boggles the mind. But what if you only had to write one page? You can do that, right? That’s how a novel is written: one page at a time. The pages add up and become your novel. It’s almost as miraculous as compound interest.

3. It’s too Hard to Get Published. I agree with this one, too, if you’re talking about traditional publishing. Not only do you have to write a great novel, you have to hope it gets to the agent or editor when he or she is in the right frame of mind for your kind of story. That could be five minutes of every day. But all is not lost, because now you can e-publish yourself for minimal cost. Yes, you have to do the marketing yourself, but you’d probably wind up doing most of that anyway. And the royalties are light-years better.

2. You Don’t Have Time. True, time is limited for most of us. We have jobs. We have families. But how much time is “time”? You could probably plan a beat on a beat sheet, or write a summary paragraph for a scene, or a piece of a scene itself, in ten minutes. Writing in dribs and drabs like this certainly makes the work go more slowly, but if you put the time in, the work will also go forward. There’s no hurry.

And the number one bogus reason for not writing your novel is:

1. You’ll Do It When…  If you look around on the internet you can find a novelty item that’s a round disc with the non-word “tuit” on it. Get one of these and then you’ll be able to do all those things you were going to do when you finally got a round tuit. We want to wait until we’re retired, or when the kids are out of diapers—until all the conditions are right before we jump into the novel. Why? Did you wait until everything was perfect to go to college? To try your first beer? To ask that cute girl or guy on a date? To get your first… well, never mind. The point is, we do lots of huge things in life without waiting around. You can do the same with your novel. Start now! Life is short. Who knows, tomorrow you might get run over by a muscle car and end up in a coma. Like the hero of my novel, which I am writing… now.

A Good Writing Day Versus a Bad Writing Day

Many yellow smiley face balls with one red frowny face ballTo quote good old John Denver, some days are diamonds, some days are stone. This is as true for writers as for anybody else and maybe a little more true for writers like me who have limited time to satisfy their literary Jones. If you’ve only got five hours a week to write and one of them goes badly, that’s a big percentage down the tubes.

So I started thinking about what makes a good writing day versus a bad one.

A Good Writing Day

  • Have little or no alcohol the evening and no caffeine after three p.m. (your milage may vary).
  • Get about eight hours of sleep with expected middle-aged-man breaks (just wait, you’ll see).
  • Get up early enough to clean up, dress, eat, get kid to school without major stress (minor stress comes with the territory).
  • Proceed from the carpool lane straight to the local coffee shop.
  • Obtain a coffee, size depending on jolt needed.
  • Ensconce self at table with laptop plugged to avoid machine outage, coffee at hand to avoid brain outage.
  • Plug earphones into laptop and ears, using correct end of earphones for each.
  • Turn on white noise to mute coffee shop bustle.
  • Fire up software, set up planned writing for the day.
  • Write. Do not look up except to drink coffee or greet personal friend who dares approach. Do not surf internet or even connect to coffee shop WiFi.
  • At the end of an hour, access WiFi, back everything up to cloud.
  • Smile in satisfaction at work done.
  • Shut down, pack up.
  • Remind self that day job is pleasant, supports family, writing, etc.
  • Go to work feeling happy.

A Bad Writing Day

  • Have more than four ounces of wine or six ounces of beer or a big martini or anything else in that line in the evening, or have caffeine after three p.m., or both. Also, eat too much at dinner and dessert.
  • Stay up late doing something silly like watching TV or writing a blog post.
  • Have a rotten night’s sleep, with more middle-aged breaks than usual and wife waking you up to say things like “roll onto your side, your snoring sounds like a bison giving birth,” or “what on earth did you eat to cause that?”
  • Get out of bed too late to get everything done. Become crabby as a result.
  • Fuss at family, listen to them fuss back.
  • Bodily heave kid into back seat. Pay no attention to kid’s being upside down.
  • Get to carpool lane when the crowd does. Wait. Wait more. Deposit kid.
  • Go home to finish getting ready. Do not eat. Endure well-deserved hard looks from wife.
  • Make it to coffee shop late. Order muffin and biggest possible coffee.
  • All tables with plug-in access taken. Set up laptop on battery, start worrying about losing work.
  • Set up earphones, play metal to match lousy mood.
  • Take big bite of muffin. Knock crumbs off keyboard.
  • Look at writing to do. Look some more. Feel stuck.
  • Perform free-writing exercise to lubricate writing gears.
  • Eat more muffin. Knock crumbs. Drink coffee.
  • Look at writing.
  • Watch people come in and out of shop.
  • Start writing.
  • Keep glancing at watch to avoid being late to work.
  • Muffin.
  • Coffee.
  • People-watching.
  • Write more. Hate it all but keep going, thinking, “Hell, it’s never going to see the light of day, anyway.”
  • Quit ten minutes early.
  • Back up files, pack up.
  • Heave heavy sigh. Reflect that years left on day job are more than many people serve in prison for serious crimes.
  • Go to work grumpy.

Well, that was illuminating. I hadn’t thought much about the causes and effects before. Most of my writing days are good ones, thank Heaven, but now maybe I can pare down the percentage of bad ones even further.

Any thoughts of your own on how to make a good writing day? Please be so kind as to leave them in the comments for the rest of humanity to enjoy. See you next time.