NaNoWriMo 2016

I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got 4 separate projects I could conceivably work on during this period. None of them are just blank screens. I feel like this is a pretty good situation to be in. What if I were in the situation of not having a project at the ready? What would I do? Honestly, I don’t know. Usually, I start a project with a single concept, maybe a sentence or a few words. Deep Space Help Desk was a concept that I’d been kicking around for a while without much luck. Then an overheard conversation at work, jostled my mind into the right place for it, and things started coming together. For Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I had a single phrase that I built a story around. The other two WIPs, one I’m calling The Dark Queen of Darkness, and the other Thittlebod or Penelope H. Adventure (That one doesn’t have much of a name yet), these both came from something much less tangible. 

In the latter two cases described above, I started with characters. I love it when a viable story starts out this way. Immediately compelling characters offer that illusive hook that writers so often talk about. Not only that, it gives me a non-flat character right away, as my wife will tell you, I struggle with character. When a character jumps off the page with what, as a writer, feels like a bit too much force, that’s the sweet spot. The only thing to be done is to observe the world through their eyes. I particularly enjoy characters who are either completely hopeless at what they do and really don’t belong wherever it is they happen to be, or they’re full experts, but in either case are inexplicably surrounded by nonsense. I love walking the character through the nonsense because it makes the dialogue much more interesting and gives me a lot of freedom with respect to what other characters say and do. Not to mention, as a writer, I can add twists that make little sense, because the main character will be quite as confused as the reader. This is excellent. If the main character is saying “Wait. What the hell just happened?” At the same moment this occurs to the reader,  the reader is on the side of the protagonist and much more likely to follow along with whatever is going on.

I think if I were starting fresh, with no real sense of where I was heading with NaNo, I think I’d start with a character and a vague sense of setting. I’d let the character’s motivations determine the plot. After all, the plot is just a series of events that prevent the MC from getting what they want and the process by which that MC overcomes the obstacles and changes as a result. Anyhow, now I’m off to pound away on my non-NaNo project before I have to switch gears. Good luck to all the NaNo participants out there!

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Revisiting older work

With Wine Bottles and Broomsticks entering the long and epic end-game of writing a book, my extreme sense of procrastination is starting to kick in. Aside from mocking up fake magic cards and poking about with a program I’ve been working on, I’ve started thinking seriously about other stories. While I want to, want to work on the sequel to Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I just can’t seem to stay focused. Part of that probably has to do with a healthy dose of self-doubt about Wine Bottles. I mean, just because I think it’s a good book and that everyone should read it doesn’t mean anyone ever will. One of those avenues of procrastination happens to be my last attempt at a novel.

The War of Shadows was the first book I’d actually completed. I even proudly sent it out to beta readers. As these things tend to go with first books, my friends mostly finished it and had encouraging things to say. However, the truth of the matter is that the book sucked, something my wife tried to say in constructive terms. The idea that it was broken finally started sinking in last summer. I don’t know that it’s broken beyond repair, but it was pretty clearly beyond my skill to correct. The core (not the entire) problem was the two main characters and especially the main character. They were bland, weak, and had no chemistry. Some of the other characters are a bit better, but in general they’re bad. My conclusion? I’m awful with characters and character arcs.

With that failure solidly under my belt back in August, I decided to take a short break from revising my broken book and work on a concept that came to me after a flippant remark. The phrase ‘The problem with witch hunts is that sometimes you find one’ actually comes from something I told someone. I’m not sure how a sentence can become a book, but there it is. This story quickly became my main writing focus, almost to the exclusion of everything else in life. What’s the main strength of Wine Bottles? Ironically, it’s the characters. This has made me revisit the conclusion that I can’t write good characters. In fact I can do it, furthermore, I knew what was necessary to fix it, but I couldn’t seem to make it work. This was, of course, because much of the action surrounding the main character was built according to his reactions, which meant a full and complete re-write of the book, something I didn’t want to do. Now I’ve finished a second book, I actually WANT to to rewrite it. I want to make that character the way he should be. Having concluded a character arc, I can see how it’s supposed to work and I’m ready to tackle it again.

In fact, I’ve already started. On Thursday night I crawled into bed, exhausted and ready for the day to be over only to be drawn to my iPad, where I clacked out the new start to the book. I only made it five-hundred words in before calling it a night, but the gauntlets were off. I’m going to completely gut and re-write the book. So far, I can say that this is much, much easier than the first time. I’m about half-way through the new first chapter and while it’s still rough (it is a draft), it’s a million times better and the characters are already more interesting and likable.

What’s interesting to me about this is that I didn’t stop writing or take a ton of classes, and I didn’t pick up dozens of books to carefully study them for techniques on how to bring out a strong character. No, I kept writing. I wrote something different, something that was supposed to be a throw-away, not a serious effort. You know what? I learned something. Not only did I learn more about how to put a story together, but I also learned about my own writing style. Just playing to my strengths has made the process of writing much more enjoyable and move along much faster. I may still have a lot to learn, but I’m now much, much further along than I was last year at this time.

Now I’m off to work on that first chapter again. Hopefully, it’ll make for a readable book this time.

The muse

I haven’t blogged in almost two weeks. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I’ve been distracted. Mostly, I’m having such a good time with Wine Bottles and Broomsticks that every free minute is devoted to getting the next line of that story down.

I promise I’m not going to bang on about my progress and number of words written and stuff. Last night I had a thought about the muse, and I wanted to share. Anyhow, maybe this shouldn’t be important, but for me I think it is. The definition the muse is a femenine figure who inspires an artist. Now, I’m not claiming that I’m an artist, I’m more of a guy who likes to tell stories, and there’s an art in that, I suppose. Anyhow, I like to think about muse in a slighty broader sense, in the sense that I’ve got a character and that character, be it male or female, is inspired by another person. To be clear, of all of the things I need to work on as a writer, character development remains my biggest problem. I’m not talking about just the character arc, I’m talking about just defining a character, anwsering the question: Who is this guy and why do I care? 

In one project, the main character has no real definition which does awful things for a story that probably has a good central concept and it’s borderline beyond my skill to fix it. In a few other projects, really these are more sketches and concepts for the most part, but I don’t have a clear picture of characters in my head. None of this is strictly true with Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, the characters are much stronger though I will conceed I’m not doing an expert job at drawing them, but I feel like I’m doing a much better job than usual. It’s growth and I’ll take it, even if it’s pretty incremental. 

Last night as I was forcing myself to go around a tiny track, hoping the tight little corners didn’t ruin my feet, I was thinking about my characters in Wine Bottles and Broomsticks. Once again, I realized that the main character needs something more. With this in mind, I turned to the other characters in that story – where did they come from? Well, I’m using muses, a lot. With one character in particular, the muse is an actor I’ve seen in several different TV shows. I haven’t picked a specific role to base my character off of, instead, I invented the character gave him a sketch and a role in the story, then as each scene unfolds, ask myself how would this actor play this character, what sorts of things would he add here? 

I took the trick to my main character. What actor would play that role if it were on TV? It came pretty quick actually. I realized I’ve got to go back and make a few changes, but nothing huge. The rest of it is a matter of sitting back and asking: How would this actor play this scene? That said, I this is really a guide to help me get past sticky spots and smooth out dialogue, not a strict set of rules. There’s plenty I’m doing with these characters that is unique to them and the story. At some point these characters will be stong enough in my head that I’ll asking how would this character do it more than how would this actor interpret it? Anyhow, it’s working for me to get me off the ground, and it’s making the project a little more fun to work through.