Tools for Novel Writers: Character Traits, Inner Resources

Character Who?Queen Elizabeth the first was quite a character

In a normal blog, you’d expect a post with “Character Traits” in the title to be about crafting great fictional characters. Well, that’s a good subject, but this pile of prose has nothing to do with it. What I want to talk about is your character—and mine, for that matter.

Lots of people start novels, but few finish them. I got to thinking about why and, in my uncontested position as Lord Mayor and Judge of All the World, I concluded that the non-finishers either don’t have the character traits needed, don’t have them in sufficient quantity, or they possess them but haven’t brought them to bear on their writing.

Persistence

There’s nothing more important to a novelist than stick-to-itiveness. A novel is a multiple-draft journey of 50,000 words or better. You’ve got to plan and execute, then plan and execute again, until the thing is done enough to put a fork in. If you’re a part-time writer like me, composing in dribs and drabs during the week, just cranking out a first draft can take a couple of years—I speak from first-hand experience on that.

Once you get the novel ready for publication, then you’ve either got to market it to agents and publishers, if you’re going the traditional route, or directly to the public, if you’re self-publishing. Achieving success in either of these modes takes time, as well. And don’t forget the second novel, and the third, and all the others. Often it takes a writer several books to get anywhere at all.

So that’s persistence. If you don’t have it, get it. If you do have it, shine its light one your novel writing.

Patience

Patience goes hand in hand with persistence. While you’re walking the long road that is crafting a novel, you’re going to run into the heebie-jeebies of haste. You’ll be eager to finish every single draft, especially the last one. And then you’ll be tearing your hair out making changes from editors, agents, or other valued critics, like beta readers, wishing you could OMG just put it out there already!

At times like these you’ve got to push back from the desk (not for too long) and whisper “patience grasshopper” to yourself. (If you don’t know where the grasshopper thing is from, you owe it to yourself to find out!) Patience isn’t just the quality of calm endurance; it is also the quality of being in the present moment with whatever you’re doing. If you can focus on one day, one moment, one task of writing at a time, the patience comes a lot easier. Practice makes is easier, too.

So, that’s… wait for it…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Patience.

See what I did there? Wasn’t that cute? No? Oh, well, on to the next topic.

Quiet and Solitude, Tolerance Thereof

You’re going to have to endure a certain amount of quiet isolation. When I say “silence” I’m not quite talking literally; for example, I like listening to some downtempo chill when I’m writing. Stephen King listens to hard rock and even metal, I think. Others like just freakin’ quiet, I’m sure. And I don’t know of anybody who writes in a crowded room where they are expected to respond to conversation; coffee houses work (for some) because, even though there are people around, you don’t have to deal with them.

What I mean is you have to create a space that makes it possible for you to create characters, plot and all that good stuff. Once you’ve made it, you have to commit to spending lots of time there; otherwise, no novel.

Focus

A person who lets themselves be distracted by a lot of different things is going to have a hard time completing a novel. I won’t say such a person can’t do it, just that it would be extra hard and extra slow. I know this very well, being of a somewhat “AD… ooh, shiny…” disposition myself. Even so, I have taught myself to focus little by little and after many years have become able to manage my distractible disposition. An hour is great for me; then I get up and stretch, or play a few minutes of guitar, or check on Facebook, or whatever—just for a few minutes. Then I get back to it. But during that hour, I am on task, not thinking about much else but the writing and taking the occasional sip of coffee.

Figure out what your focus rhythm is. If you can’t focus at all, you can learn. I learned a lot about focus by taking martial arts and yoga classes. Those physical pursuits require a level of attention that translates pretty well to writing. You can figure out something that will work for you, no doubt. But you’ve got to find it.

It’s Just Me

These observations on character traits needed for writing a novel are based on my own experience to date. Your mileage may vary. A lot. But I hope this piece gets you thinking about inner resources you can develop to make your writing better and more fun.

Let me and the other two readers know if you’ve got any other ideas about inner resources a novelist should develop and how they might do it.

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