Recently, I wrote about my commitment to studying and learning about plot structure. In addition, I've been thinking a lot about character motivation.
In this blog, I learned some simple ways to begin studying plot and characters. One of the suggestions is to watch movies and read books, looking for something in the story, whether it be the inciting event, the climax, or something else. You're supposed to look for one or two things. Along with using post-its for the books I read, marking the important bench marks in the story, I've been asking questions about motivation.
I think it's been driving hubby crazy. For example, the other day we went to his parents house and watched It Takes Two. You know, the Mary Kay and Ashley Olsen flick, back when they were young and innocent. I hadn't seen it in years! I kept asking questions like: Why does the evil fiancé want to have the wedding in one day? She's waited this long to court the billionaire, why is a month so long for her now?
Together, he and decided that the evil fiancé saw Roger with Dianne and knew that it was true love, too! She was scared that she'd get dumped for true love.
Then, when she told one of the Olsen twins, "I know exactly what you're trying to do! My father remarried three times, and each time I tried to get rid of my stepmother. I wanted my Dad's attention, too..." I wondered--- then why are you so mean to her? If you were in the same situation, why are you doing this?
Questions like these, I think, are good. Sometimes I can figure out answers, but sometimes I can't, and that's okay.
The best thing about doing this is that I've started questioning motivation in my own characters.
I'm no expert, but I always thought all you need in a story is a beginning, a middle and an end. My creative writing teacher, Josh, would draw a mountain on the board, like the one above, and talk about things like rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. He'd tell us to avoid exposition as much as possible. He'd talk about best practices for dialogue, character building, setting the stage, and using "specific concrete details."
After reading the blog posts above, though, I've decided that there's still a lot for me to learn. I've signed up for a couple creative writing classes. (One is actually called "Planning and Structuring the Novel.") In the meantime, though, I'm giving myself some homework.
I've decided to take the challenges in the 2nd blog post, "How to Study Plot and Character," and measure out the important plot points in books and movies I enjoy. I'll write about my experiences in the blog posts to follow.
I always tell my students: In order to do good writing, you need to see good writing. I help them break apart essays: find the thesis, each topic sentence.... the hook, etc. Why not do the same for my writing?
I've been teaching my students about the writing process quite a bit lately. I tell them that the first time they write their essay, it won't be perfect. In fact, it will be messy, and that's okay.
I tell them that the second draft won't be perfect, either, and that's okay, too. Neither will the third or sometimes even the fourth and fifth, but--- with each draft, they are coming closer and closer to a better essay.
I introduce the idea of "seeking advice" from classmates, trusted friends and tutors. I tell them that they can (and should) seek advice on their writing throughout the process. Writing takes time. It's a process. My students are ESL (English as a Second Language), so I encourage and tell them that what they are doing is amazing, and it is! To write a fluent multi paragraph essay in a second language is no small feat.
It's time to take my own advice.
I'm on my second round of NaNoWriMo, and my book isn't finished. I wrote 30,000 words in November 2016, and now I'm attempting the Camp NaNoWriMo this April, with 20,000 words on top of the 30. That makes a total of 50,000 words! Impressive? Maybe.
I'm not done with the book. The 20,000 words are me rewriting the first 30,000 words from 3rd person to 1st person, adding in scenes that I didn't think about adding in when I wrote in November. In some ways, I feel like I'm moving backwards. But as I rewrite and continue to build up my characters (through interviews and pen pal letters, etc.) I remember what I teach.
I hope it doesn't take that long for my characters and story to take shape, but it might. And that's okay. I think about the many people who probably influenced the creation of the beloved m&m characters. It took a lot of work, draft after draft... revision after revision...
If I were to pin my current story to an m&m year, it would probably be 1957. I started it when I was in high school. Not in 1954 (I wasn't born yet). Probably closer to 1999 or 2000. But that was my earliest version of the story. As I picked it back up this last November, I changed a number of details. It's still "black and white," though. I still have a lot of work to do.
And that's okay. With every draft, I get closer and closer to something better, something worthy of possible publication.
I once asked a good author friend of mine about his process for writing books. He told me, "First, I make a list of ALL the characters that will play a role in my story. Then, I sketch them..."
He's a graphic novelist, so I think he literally sketches them out, but you don't have to be a good drawer, which is good news for me because I'm a terrible artist, to sketch a character. When we talk about "sketching" characters, we're talking about creating characters--- the physical traits as well as the internal traits.
Oftentimes, I don't know who's in the story until I start writing. With one NanoWriMo experience (November 2016) under my belt (30,000 words!) and currently in the midst of the beginnings of my first CampNaNoWriMo, I've learned a couple tricks for building better characters. I used to think writing out what I already know about my character is a waste of time, but I've learned that it really isn't.
Googling pictures help! Say I need a teacher, and I'm not sure what the teacher will be like, I'll google "teacher" images and see what pops up. Then, I'll describe the picture, and from the picture I can come up with personality traits as well. Even if I know my character, having a picture makes it more "real" for me, so I've been trying to add pictures for all my characters, even the minor ones.
In a previous blog, I talked about writing pen pal letters to and from my characters. I find that's a great way to get to know a character. But for my major key players, I like to sit down and interview them. And, it's more than just asking, "what's your favorite color?" or "who's your best friend?" Really dig into their character.
I picked up this template sometime last year... somewhere. I really like it! You are welcome to use it, and always feel free to ask follow up questions, etc. Enjoy, and happy character sketching! Remember--- the more you know your character, the more they can tell you their stories!
In what situation is your self esteem most at risk?
What are you keeping a secret?
What are you lying to yourself about? To others?
Is there anyone in your life that you are attracted to?
How do you decide if you can trust someone?
How do you know you love someone and/or when someone loves you?
When you walk into a room what do you notice first? Second?
How would you change the world? The things around you? The people around you?
How do you learn best?
What are your goals in life?
What unusual hobbies or interests do you have?
What are you most afraid of?
If you had one wish, what would it be?
What do you like best about yourself?
What do you like least about yourself?
What do you think other people think of you?
What’s your greatest source of frustration?
What’s your greatest source of joy?
What are you especially proud of in your life?
If you could change anything about your life what would it be?
I love books so much that when I watched the new Beauty and the Beast yesterday for the first time, I cried when Belle walked into Beast's library. (Not even kidding!) I was telling my friend who I went with, that it just brought my childhood dreams to life!
Today I want to talk about littering and other acts of kindness. What do I mean by that? Well, keep reading and find out!
I went grocery shopping today. I haven't been in a while, and I think that's true for everyone who lives in my neighborhood. The lines for the checkout were pretty crazy, but instead of getting frustrated, I decided to enjoy the AC (it's starting to get hot already!) and read my book while I stand in line. Yes, I brought a book to the grocery store! Don't you?
Before I pulled it out of my purse, though, a magazine cover caught my attention. It was a picture of Emma Watson, probably my favorite rising actress ever! I was still floating from my Beauty and the Beast experience and decided to read the article while I waited to pay for my groceries.
That's when I noticed the guy standing behind me. All he had was a 6 liter bottle of root beer and a package of strawberries. "Go ahead of me," I told him. I defiantly had more than him, and I wasn't in any particular hurry.
He seemed surprised and hesitated for a moment, like he wanted to say, Wow! Are you sure? He said thank you, though, and moved ahead of me. There were still two other people ahead of us, so I don't know how much of a difference it made, but he seemed to think so.
I started reading the Emma Watson article and didn't notice that the guy who was now in front of me had put one of the dividers on the belt for me so I'd know that it was okay to start unloading my groceries up there with his bottle of soda and strawberries. "Oh," I said. "I didn't notice..."
"I wasn't going to interrupt your reading," he said grinning from ear to ear. I ended up putting the magazine down because I knew it would, soon, be my turn to check out, but I watched this guy in front of me. Maybe he had always been kind, but he seemed to go out of his way to talk to the cashier and bagger, which most people don't do. (I know--- I was a cashier for 3 years before my mission.) I wondered if he was "spreading" the kindness that I had given him.
This is where littering comes in. In the magazine I picked up, I read about Emma Watson and one of the amazing things she's doing right now. She's putting books in subways for people to find and read. (Watch video below).
Spreading a bit of love. Is that what I did at the grocery store? Is that what we do when we write honest stories? I like to think so.
I like to think that's my number one reason for going through the hell that writing sometimes is. I hope that someone somewhere will feel something in one of my poems or (someday) books. They'll learn something about the kindness that exists in this crazy world.
So I will keep reading. I will keep writing. I hope you do the same.
I'm just going to throw this out there--- I have a love/hate relationship with creating characters.
Of course it's fun to come up with a new story and make decisions about who will play a major role in it...
Will my main character be a boy or girl? Will he/she be tall, skinny, large? What mannerisms will set him/her apart? What color hair shall he/she have? What clothes will he/she wear? Where will he/she live? Who are his/her family members? etc.
The more questions I answer about my main characters, the more I feel like I get to know them! They become real to me. I love it!
...At the same time, though, it's exhausting. I have difficulties trying to decide what I want to eat for lunch, let alone what my character's fears will be or what motivates them to do what they do. It's also hard to know where to stop. Does it really matter what his/her favorite color is? Really?
More recently, I've made a couple discoveries that makes me dread character sketches:
1) All my characters need to be believable, not just the one telling the story. For that, I need to do character sketches for all my characters, not just the main 3-5.
2) Books often have more than a handful of characters because in our hugely populated planet, each person interacts with at least 5-10 (or more!) people on a regular basis. So, sure I might have 3 main characters, but each of them know another 10 people (or more) each...
Sketching Characters: Trick #1
There are lots of ways to get to know your characters. In the past, I've done the traditional 10 questions:
But answering these questions only skims the surface of who your character is. It's a start, but that's all it is.
Sketching Characters: Trick #2
Last November, when I did my first NaNoWriMo, someone in the forums or in the webinars (I can't remember where), suggested that I interview my character.
I imagined my character sitting across from me in my living room. I had a pad of paper in my hands and I interviewed her like she was Sandra Bullock or Ann Hathaway. I imagined someone counting down: 3...2...1... action! The camera light turned from red to green, and I got to business. I chatted with my character about her role in the story, her secrets, her fears and her relationships with her siblings, teachers and friends.
After the interview, I read the "transcript" to Hubby, but (bless his heart) he got bored. Character sketches are only interesting to those who write them, I soon learned.
As I'm preparing for CampNaNoWriMo for this April, I'm thinking about all my characters, not just the three I interviewed in November. I think for the major-minor characters (if that even makes sense) I'll do an interview, but in addition to that, I have another trick for getting to know your characters.
Sketching Characters: Trick #3
I'm taking an online creative writing class right now, and I learned this trick from my teacher:
Write a letter from your main character to you, as if you are pen pals.
I did this for my main character. Her letter helped me think of new scenes for my book, which is always nice! Plus, it made it feel like my character and I are more than just interviewer and interviewee. It's a relationship. She's aware of me as much as I am of her. I'm planning to write a letter back, asking more questions about her situation, etc.
But I'm, hopefully, going to start writing letters to and from my other characters.
It's time consuming to create so many characters. I groaned the last time one popped into my book because I had to go through the 10-question list. But with the interview and pen pal letters, at least it's a fun experience. It's also effective because I have to instantly "hear" the character's voice. For me, it's been the most effective and enjoyable part of character sketching.
Sketching Characters: Bonus Trick!
Lastly, the thing that I felt silly doing, but my creative writing teacher strongly encouraged of us was to find pictures in magazines or on the Internet that could represent our character(s). I felt a little silly looking for someone who looks like the person I created in my head, but it took hardly any time at all on Pinterest and Google to find a picture that looked like my main character. I found her siblings, too.
There's a part of me that wants to reach out to these random people on the Internet and let them know that they, basically, look like the characters I drew in my mind. I'm not sure if they'd be honored or just find it creepy, though...
The point of this bonus trick, though, is that it gives me a visual of the character. Sure, I "see" her in my mind every time I sit down to write, but it's good to have a photo of her as well. It makes the experience a little more "real" for me.
Current Writing Goals
My goal this Spring Break (and the rest of March) is to correspond like pen pals with each of the characters that I know are in my story. I think that will help me most prepare for CampNaNoWriMo.
My CampNaNoWriMo goal, by the way, is 25,000 words. I got 31,741 words last November. I only need about another 20,000 to get to 50,000, but I'd rather have more words than not enough--- so I think 25,000 will be good. I'm going to continue working on my previous project that I had in November. It's my first time at camp. I'm looking forward to it!
Over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I read all 5 of the Percy Jackson books:
I didn't know that I'd like them so much, but I do! So much that I put my copies of them (which I got for Christmas) next to my Harry Potter series. Why I waited so long to read them? I don't know. After I finished, I said to Hubby, "You'll like them!" And then I got an idea. The next time I was at the library, I picked up the audio book for #1 and brought it home with me.
Hubby sometimes does a lot of traveling for work. He listens to the same audio book series that he's had for forever. It's good, I guess. I listened to them on our way to California for our honeymoon. But it's the same thing. And, these books are so much more fun!
I told him my idea, and he agreed to try the first book. A week later, he asked about the 2nd book. "Can we get the audio book for that?" We got him a library card. He hadn't been in the building since he was in elementary school, which boggled my mind!
Before I knew it, he had gone through the entire series, too. It was great because we instantly had inside jokes. We talked about the characters, our favorite moments...! So much fun!
Then it was Hubby's turn. He asked if I knew that there was another series with some of the same characters: The Hero's of Olympus:
We took a trip to the library together. He got the audio book of the 1st book, and I got the hardback copy of it. I tutor, so it makes more sense to have the book, which I can read when I'm not with a student. Later that week, I found Hubby in the office listening to the audio book, and I realized that he was just two chapters behind. I decided to listen in until he caught up. We ended up listening (almost) to the entire book together.
For the 2nd book, Hubby got ahead. He had a long trip for work, and I had a bunch of grading that had to come first before reading. He finished it before me, which drove me crazy because I wanted to know what would happen, but (of course) I didn't want him to tell me. I wanted to read it myself.
I got book 3 first. And I finished before him! Just barely.
Now we're both on book 4. We're listening to it together to start. I'm hoping I get my grading done quickly next week so I can finish before him.
The race is on...
I hope that someday I'll be able to create a book/series that will cause my readers to race and enjoy! I think it was Stephen King who said that reading is a great source of inspiration! I'm inspired.
About a month ago, I opened some very old documents in my computer. They were stashed away in a private folder entitled "Works in Progress." (They'd been works in progress for over a decade.) I opened the folder and could almost smell the dust piled on the documents.
I scanned the titles. Some I recognized instantly, but a few I needed to open and skim the first few pages to remember what they were. I'd either smile and laugh---remembering the inspiration for the piece of writing or the gist of the story ---- or feel so embarrassed that I'd have the urge to look for matches so I could burn the document right there on the spot. Tossing them in the desktop trash would not be satisfactory enough.
For a lot of them, it was like bumping into a friend I hadn't talked to or heard from in years.
There were a set of documents in particular that brought both a smile and a feeling of nausea. It was an actual "book" I wrote when I was 15 years old. I remember tweaking chapters, sentences and plot points and sharing my revisions with my closest and dearest high school friends. I had been convinced that someday I'd publish it. Sadly, this book hadn't been touched in nearly 15 years.
Oh, well, I thought and closed the folder.
But I didn't leave the computer. I stared at the "Works in Progress" folder and thought about this book I wrote so many years ago. I tried to remember why I hadn't worked on it after I initially "finished" it. Something always seemed to take priority over it, I reminisced.
Once I finished high school, for example, I knew I needed to get a "real" job or at least go to college and study literature and writing before I could publish it. Then, I got the "real" job, teaching ESL, and I was bogged down with lesson plans and grading. I never have time for it, I remembered justifying, until the entire book slipped onto an old shelf in my subconscious and I never looked at it.
Yes, that's probably one of the reasons. The real reason, though? The bigger reason? I wanted to grow up. I wanted to move on from the story like I wanted to move on from high school.
Sure, I thought about working on it. I maybe even once or twice actually read bits of it with intent to make it better, but it always brought back high school memories, and teenage angst. I didn't want to relive that. I wanted to move on!
The book is, naturally, YA and fantasy. I never said it out loud, for fear that I would hurt its feelings, but I didn't want to work on the book anymore because I wanted to grow up and write something for real.
So, a month ago, I sat at the computer, sneezing from the dust, and I thought about all of this. Shonna Slayton's words came to me. She had asked me what kind of writing I do. I had said, "well, I want to write adult fiction, but I keep gravitating towards YA."
She had said, "just own it, then." Basically, she said that I should write what I'm writing.
I opened the document and forced myself to read the first chapter. Yes, there were tons of errors, but the plot wasn't half bad. I had a character (3 actually) who had a goal in mind, and there were obstacles blocking them from achieving it. Isn't that, basically, all you need for a story?
I read the first chapter to hubby, and he agreed that it was worth working on. So I resurrected it. And just in time for NaNoWrimo!
I've done some serious make-overs on the characters, changed a bit of the plot, and outlined the first few scenes so I'll be ready to hit the ground running.
No get me wrong! It will still be a lot of work! My 15 year old self did the best she could, but there are a lot of obvious mistakes that I've now learned to correct over the years. What's great about having a resurrected story like this, though, is that I have a lot of the bare bones. I just need to rewrite, rewrite, and build, build, build.
Wish me luck!
Reading is an important part of a writer's life. My experiences with books motivate and influence my life as a writer. Steven King in On Writing says, "You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you" (pg. 141).
I had an extra long summer this year. I finished teaching at the end of May and didn't go back to work until this week, almost the last week in August. My friend, who also teaches, had half that break, so I consider myself lucky and have, therefore, had a lot of time for drumming, writing and reading. It's been heavenly!
At the end of Steven King's incredible book about writing, he gives a list of all the books he's read over the "past three or four years," just to show us how diverse his reading is. He's setting an example for us newbies to follow. He says, "Write a lot and read a lot" (pg. 293). That's solid advice, so for my first time, I've compiled a list of all the books I've read this summer. I haven't done too shabby.
Here's the list: (and in the order I completed them)
I'm trying to continue my reading streak as the semester gets going. I'm trying to manage my classes better so that in the late afternoons and quiet evenings I can read like it's summer. Steven King said: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that" (p. 140).
Happy reading and happy writing!
Hubby and I hold hands and quickly walk through the quiet mall. More than half the shops are closed. The halls are practically empty, and there's no music. I see a noteworthy used bookstore, but we're on our way to a small library in the outskirts of our city boundaries, to which I've never been to, so he doesn't let me browse.
We turn a corner and hubby pulls me toward a wide opening. I take two steps and realize I'm in a library. There's what looks like a desk with a librarian, a few shelves with books, and some computers in the far corner. Before I can ask about the workshop we're there for, I see three women on couches, each with a pen and pad of paper, and Shonna Slayton. I recognize her instantly from the library website. She smiles like we're old friends.
Like reunited friends, she teases me for being a few minutes late and Hubby for being the only male. After introductions--- we each take a turns saying our names and what kind of writing we do--- she poses the question, "Where do you get your ideas?"
After we talk about inspirations for our writing, Shonna sums, "We essentially get them everywhere!"
She says that she jots ideas on slips of paper and puts them in a box. They're oftentimes clips of words from magazines. Then she "mooshes" ideas together. The important thing, she stresses, is that you write them down, even if think your idea is so perfect that you can't possibly forget it!
The Power of Retelling
Plot can be particularly troublesome for writers. (Don't I know it!) One trick (or "hack" as Shonna calls it), is to do a retelling. A lot of stories, believe it or not, are retellings. She uses the example of The Little Princess, which is the story of a girl who goes to boarding school. When her father is presumably killed, she falls from grace (so to speak) and must work as a servant. Is this not a Cinderella of sorts?
Retellings are great because they provide an initial plot, so if you're stuck on plot, the retelling gives you a framework. Also, retellings are insanely popular. Shonna confesses that they're easy to sell. "People like the familiar," she explains.
How to do a Retelling
Retellings are fairly straightforward. You think of a story that you love and then change aspects of it. "Moosh" other bits and viola! a new and interesting story! In our small group, we made a list of elements you can change in a retelling:
After that, we wrote individual "Ugly Duckling" tales, choosing our own genre and twists. Hubby and I wrote about a boy "ugly duckling," living in a futuristic world where everyone claims to be perfect and the same.
All the stories written in the group, though all based on the premise of the ugly duckling, were different from each other. That's the magic of retellings! They can be individualized with a unique, personal flair.
There are a few things I plan to take-away from this workshop. First, when stuck, "moosh." It's okay to mix and remix anything and everything when the storm in your brainstorming sessions are dry or barely a sprinkle.
Second, have fun! Too often, I'm in too serious of a mood when I sit down at the computer to write. Third, when in doubt, just ask. There were a lot of great questions throughout the workshop about editing, publishing and the like. Shonna was honest and approachable. She offered helpful resources, like Storyfix.com and Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Being part of the writer's community, where ever you live is enriching!