Monday, October 29, 2012

Some Good News for Pantsers

Even with several complete novels under my belt, I still struggle with writing them. One of my biggest issues in writing fiction is making sure my characters come across as believable, as living, breathing creatures with a past, a present, and a future. I love a story where a character (or characters) takes over and comes to life, and I strive to create that kind of story, but sometimes my characters come across as flat.

This leads to some big problems when writing the rough draft of a novel. I tend to shudder when somebody mentions the word 'outline,' and immediately flash back to high school and those outlines my English teacher made me do. You know the ones, neatly laid out, with each new idea under the main idea getting its own letter or number or what-have-you, and an indentation. But writing by the seat of my pants (or pantsing, as some call it) produces an awful lot of unusable words, and I'd really like to streamline the process and get as much of it right the first time through.

This leads to my other problem, which is, when I come to something that will end up changing an earlier section of the story, I have the compulsion to go back and make that change before I can write on. I've tried following the advice of some, which is to ignore the changes and push on, but that results in a gobbledy-gook of a mess. I've given in to the compulsion and gone back to make the changes, only to lose that forward momentum and the passion that was driving me initially. What I needed was a way to barrel through the first draft without making huge changes along the way, without giving in to the need to go back and fix things, and all while breathing life into my characters. Easy, right?

This year I entered the novel contest at Codex, which is a lovely group of writers. The point of the contest is to finish a novel by December. I started in March with an initial outline of a novel. I wrote out the usual stuff, like what the characters look like, what they do for a living, blah, blah, blah. Don't get me wrong, that's important stuff, but what I end up doing during my first draft is figuring out who the characters really are, hence the need for major rewrites and revisions later. They sort of go around doing random things while I get to know them.

At any rate, I wrote a first draft and liked some parts, but really hated others, which is standard operating procedure for me. Then, I heard about the 90 day novel, a book that was supposed to get your butt in gear and produce something decent in three months. You can read more about Maya here. She talks about her own struggles with pantsing, which convinced me to try the 90 day novel.

The gist of the book is that you answer a bunch of questions about your characters before you even write the first line of the novel. These are great questions that delve into the psyches of the characters. I had tons of fun doing this even though I'd already gotten a first draft down, and came up with some amazing insights. You spend an entire 30 days getting to know your characters before you start drafting, then you have 60 days to bang out a draft.

I had addressed some of the questions already, but just a handful. I didn't follow the guidelines exactly. I didn't feel that I needed to. I spent about 3 weeks answering questions and writing out little scenes and bits of dialogue, then I plunged into a complete rewrite, saving only a few essential things from the first draft. I was initially on target to finish by mid-November, but I'm happy to say, I finished the second draft a week ago. I do have a couple of scenes to add from the atagonists' POV, but the good news is, I didn't feel the urge to go back and fix things, I came up with an outline that worked (!!!), and I kept that passion and drive the entire way through the book. I can't wait to try this from scratch with the next novel and see what happens.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Doesn't Kill You...

I love listening to podcasts. I'm usually home with the toddler on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I enjoy having something in the background to listen to as we play or putter around the house without resorting to the television.

One of my favorite shows is NPR's This American Life. I listened to one of the most recent episodes about people who had close calls with death (title What Doesn't Kill You). I was riveted to this episode. The first part was about comedienne Tig Notaro. She went onstage a day or two after finding out she had stage 2 cancer breast cancer and opened the show with, "Hi, I have cancer. How are you?" She then went on to talk about all of the other stuff that happened to her in the few months before that diagnosis, and let me tell you, it made all of those stereotypical, depressing country music songs sound like a trip to Disneyworld. For a few months, she had more drama packed into her life than the most outrageous soap opera. And yes, she's funny. The set is funny.  I'm amazed at how much bravery she showed by getting up on stage and talking about her life like that. If you don't listen to the entire episode, at least listen to her part.

This got me thinking about writing (as so many things do) and how awful (or not) us writers can be to our characters. Joss Whedon is ruthless when it comes to his characters. They suffer. A lot. They die. Sometimes they come back. He puts them through the ringer and shows what they're made of. On the other end of the extreme are the writers who are scared to do anything bad to their characters. I'm thinking of Twilight, which was a huge disappointment for many reasons, one of which is that nothing bad ever really happens to Bella, with the exception of some stuff at the end of the first book. And I guess what happens at the beginning of the second, although I thought she had a chance to make a new life for herself, but I digress, and I don't want to spoil the series in case some teenage girl out there who hasn't read it has stumbled across this blog.

I really do try to make my characters suffer. If my pulse is racing or tears are stinging my eyes while I'm writing, then I know I'm on the right track. I want to find out what my characters made of. I like seeing them pull through the worst possible scenario I can think up. I think readers appreciate it when characters struggle.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the Name of Research

Being a writer is a great excuse to do all sorts of things in the name of research. A few years ago, I had this idea for an urban fantasy detective novel. I never got around to writing it--yet--but I had fun taking a class on private investigation in order to do some research for the novel.

To my surprise, there is a ton of variation among states when it comes to who can be a PI. For example, in New Mexico it's required that you undergo an extensive background check, get fingerprinted, take and pass an exam, and have at least 6,000 hours of investigation-related experience in the previous five years. After you pay the fee and address the other details, then you can get licensed as a private investigator. In Colorado, however, you don't need any of that. Joe Schmoe can simply call himself a private investigator, and that's that.

We had guest speakers, including other PI's who specialized in different areas, and a psychic. The psychic would be in the middle of discussing a case she'd worked when all of a sudden she'd focus on an individual in the class and give a mini-reading right then and there. I was torn between making eye contact with her and furiously scribbling away the entire time. I was (foolishly, I admit) afraid that she'd know all my secrets and spill them in front of the class. Instead, my mini-reading was quite tame.

Private investigators can work for themselves, or for lawyers, or for corporations (doing background checks and internal investigations, for example). The best ones tend to be detail-oriented, organized, and able to think on their feet. And they seem to have even more paperwork than medical professionals.

Here's a list of some schools around the country--and a couple online--that offer PI classes.