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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

I’ve reached the nominal half-way point of NaNoWriMo, twenty-five thousand words. Part of the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is establishing these milestones, because honestly, it does feel good to reach them.

Sometimes, though, I just wish they didn’t come up so fast. It seems like one hardly has time to savor twenty-thousand before, next thing you know, you’re supposed to have reached 30. Which, for anyone who is keeping score, should be tomorrow.

Writing is work

There’s no doubt about that. If you’re at all serious about this whole noveling thing, you have to work at it. A blogger friend of mine wrote a guest post aptly titled The Myth of Being in the Zone. There’s a lot of truth to what she says. Sometimes writing is an exhilarating, joyous burst of creative freedom.

But most of the time it’s work.

For me, the zeal of starting a new project usually lasts to about 10,000 words. After that, the work sets in. Which is not to say that it isn’t still enjoyable. But it’s a whole different experience to glance down at your word count after an arduous hour of work to see that you’ve managed to eke out 300 words, than it is when you’re “in the zone” and that same hour nets you 1,500.

This is also about when the procrastination kicks in. You’ll notice that I’m blogging at the moment instead of working on my novel. I’m a little blocked at the moment, in the middle of a scene that I’m not quite sure how to progress from point A to point B.

I could jump into it and grind it out, but I’ve found that usually it’s just better if I let these things sit for a while. If I come back to it fresh, the solution usually presents itself. Stressing out over OMG Must Advance Word Count! rarely helps. But, your mileage may vary.

Pacing is work

In my last NaNoWriMo diary, I was fretting over how much exposition I had to get through to uncover the story’s core mystery. I’ve done that, but I’ve been surprised to discover how scary that can be. I don’t recall having felt this way on prior novels, but I have here. I’ve spent all this time creating various mysteries, and resolving them is just a little bit frightening. I worry that what follows this first round of mysteries won’t hold the reader’s interest as well.

Of course I have the opposite concern, too: for 25,000 words, now, I’ve been piling and piling the mysteries on top of one another. At times I’ve felt like it’s too much. That I need to throw the reader some kind of bones, let them come to the answers to something, before they get frustrated with me.

Pacing is all about walking the right line between those competing fears, and honestly, I think it’s one of the harder facets of good novel writing to learn.

Showing character through dialogue

Quite some time ago, I wrote an article on how to un-clone your characters with distinctive dialogue. For Lapochka, much more than any other novel I’ve written, I’m finding myself using those techniques explicitly not just to make the characters distinct from one another, but to convey to the reader those characters’ personalities. I suspect the reason has to do with writing in the first-person POV, as opposed to my usual third-person limited POV.

We get plenty of Anna’s voice through the first-person narrative itself. She’s telling us the story in her own words. Her snarky sarcasm, her ironic sense of humor, her bleakly wry observations all have plenty of opportunities to show themselves. But the minor characters don’t get that. All they get are a few lines of dialogue here and there, so each one has to count.

I’ve got one supporting character named Steve who is basically a manipulative jerk. He likes to be in control. He likes it when other people are acting as pleases him. His dialogue reflects that with a lot of imperative-voice sentences. I don’t find him saying “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” which is ordinary active voice. Rather, he’ll say “No, you don’t want to do that.” Grammatically, it’s in the imperative voice. It’s a command. Colloquially, everyone understands that these are two different styles of presenting one’s opinions. But the difference in tone between the simple statement and the command is important. One is neutral, and respectful of the listener’s own opinions. The other is pushy and disrespectful, however much it’s disguised behind smiles and a cheerful tone of voice.

I have another character, Alex, who is a Russian Studies professor and himself a Russian expatriate. His speech reflects this through techniques of dialect, which I also addressed in that earlier article. I’ve known a few Russian speakers of English over the years, so it’s not too difficult to emulate their grammatical idiosyncrasies for Alex. The pleasant discovery with him has been that the broken-ness of his English also serves as a useful tool for convey his emotional state. When he’s calm and collected, his English is better. When he’s upset, it slips back towards native Russian patterns.

Ok. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got a word count to advance!

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, pacing, writing, imperative voice, Lapochka, NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo diary part 2: the serendipity begins

After 5 days of writing, I’m 10,000 words in. I’m quite enjoying the process of watching this book unfold, but I have to say that some days have been a lot harder than others. Part of that may be unavoidable. I know that there’s a bunch of stuff I need Anna to discover before the plot can logically move forward. I know better than to just infodump it into the narrative, which means I’ve got to actually show Anna learning this stuff.

Frankly, it’s hard work coming up with interesting ways for Anna to discover a whole bunch of stuff about her father that she never knew, but which also supports the mysteries Anna will then set out to unravel. It would be all too easy to end up sabotaging the choices I need her to make by revealing the information in the wrong ways. So that takes time.

I also made a decision to write this book in first person POV, which is a departure for me. I’ve always been somewhat afraid of trying that, but something about this premise and the character of Anna made me feel like I ought to try it. I think partly I knew that some significant parts of this book were going to hinge on internal conflicts and Anna working out the ramifications of the identity crisis I threw at her in chapter 1, for which first-person is a natural choice. The alternative, doing it in limited third person with a whole lot of inner monologue, somehow wasn’t as appealing to me.

It’s going ok, I suppose. I’m happy with what I’ve written so far, even though I don’t yet feel qualified to write Anna in that way. I don’t really know her well enough yet that I feel I ought to be allowed to put words in her mouth and thoughts in her head like that. I expect that by the time I get to the end of the book, I’ll have a much clearer and stronger feel for Anna’s voice, which means I’ll have to go back and re-write the beginning to make it match. But that’s ok. It will be worth the work.

Still, I’ve had some fun surprises along the way. Like I said last time, the stuff that comes to you while you’re writing is almost always better than what you could ever think of ahead of time, and that’s been true for me a couple of times already.

Anna

The biggest surprise has been to find Anna suspecting her mother of having murdered her father. That was a good one, because with the set of information she has at hand, it’s actually not a bad theory. It can be made to fit a whole bunch of other stuff Anna is wondering about, too. So I had to run with that for a while. It was a fun digression, and I suspect I’ll probably end up keeping it in the final draft, but ultimately it wasn’t too difficult for Anna to spot the places where that theory doesn’t hold up.

I haven’t learned yet whether Anna swears a lot because she’s actually tough and brassy, or because it’s a defense mechanism. That one’s still up in the air. What I have learned about her is kind of interesting, though. She’s impulsive. We knew that already. But the curious part is that although she knows she’s that way, she can sense it, she nevertheless lets herself give in to her impulses anyway. This may well get her into trouble someday. We’ll see.

Peter

Peter is Anna’s father. He isn’t personally in the novel, having disappeared some fifteen years prior. But he is definitely taking on a persona of his own through the material artifacts he left behind. Anna was only five years old when he left, so she is becoming re-acquainted with him by going through his stuff, at the same time as I’m learning about him at all.

He’s an interesting guy. He was a huge Roy Rogers fan as a kid, and as it turns out Roy Rogers is what got him started collecting comic books. Comic books are a central theme in the novel, and while I’d always had that as part of the premise, I had never given much thought to how, exactly, Peter got started on collecting them. Turns out that the King of the Cowboys had a comic book series back in the day, and so those were his “gateway drug” into the larger world of superhero comic books of the late 50s and early 60s.

The other fun thing about Peter is that he wasn’t the kind of guy who would just tell you what he thought. He would, rather, ask you rhetorical questions that had only one possible answer. Like, he wouldn’t say “ew, that looks disgusting,” he’d say “oh, you’re not really going to eat that, are you?” This has been helpful, because even though Peter himself is not around in any of the scenes, Anna does have a picture of him that she talks to. And sometimes, in her head, the picture talks back. Not literally—she’s not crazy, she knows it’s just her imagining what he would say—but still it has become a useful device for creating some interaction, for building an emotional relationship, between someone who is there and someone who isn’t.

That’s not something I ever planned, but boy am I glad that picture turned up when it did.

November 06, 2009 19:25 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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NaNoWriMo diary, part 1: This is the fun part.

Ah, November. There’s a chill in the air. The leaves are dropping from the trees. And thousands of insane writers all over the world are banging out first drafts of new novels. Yes, I’m one of the NaNoWriMo faithful. This is my fifth year doing it. My “logline” this year is:

A young woman searches for her missing father through clues hidden in underground comic books from Soviet Russia.

I decided to do a NaNoWriMo diary because frankly, I’ve been blogging about novel writing and character development in the abstract for a while now, and I thought it would be a good idea to share a concrete example of how I actually put those principles into practice.

Today, what’s foremost in my mind is the truth of something that you hear writers say more often than not: no book ever turns out like you think it’s going to. You always discover new things in the process of writing that you could never have thought of ahead of time. And in my experience, these little jewels of serendipity are much better than the stuff I did think of ahead of time.

After just two days and a mere 3800 words of crappy first draft, I’ve discovered some interesting stuff about my characters. Writers say that great characters really jump off the page and take on a life of their own. They end up saying things you’d never imagine. So far, after what is probably only 5% of what the finished story will be, I’m finding that to be the case.

Anna Schoeffer

My main character is Anna, the young woman in question. She’s 20. It’s July, and she’s working a summer job to save money for college. Nothing especially uncommon there, which is basically intentional. I much prefer writing about ordinary people. But already Anna is taking on a life of her own. I’ve discovered two things about her:

First, wow does she have a potty-mouth! This girl swears a lot. I’m not sure quite what it means yet. It might mean she’s this really tough, brassy chick. But I have a feeling it might all be for show. She may swear and act all tough as a defense, whereas inside she’s not really so self-assured. We’ll see.

Second, she has a pretty short fuse. In chapter one, she ended up socking her step-brother in the jaw. Ok, he definitely had it coming, but still. She just up and did it. Not in a calculating way, but as a reaction to something he did. I’m not quite sure what to do with that. I mean, in real life I’m a total pacifist. I don’t condone violence as a solution to one’s problems. But at least in that one situation for Anna, it felt like what she’d do. Part of me wants to punish her for that, because again I don’t believe in acting that way. But for now I’m going to reserve judgment, wait a while and see how it plays out. It’s early yet and my gut feeling is that if I try to impose any particular moral viewpoint on the story that I’ll just screw it up.

Christopher

Christopher is Anna’s step brother, the recipient of the punch. But again, he was way out of line and totally deserved it. I knew this about him going in—didn’t expect him to get punched, but I knew he was going to do the things he did. But what I discovered was that underneath his socially inappropriate behavior, he’s actually kind of a chicken. He shies away from confrontations, and for all his bravado, he backs down easily. He is ultimately a minor character who won’t be in most of the book, but I wonder how far he might actually push it with Anna?

Betty

Betty is Anna’s mom. She’s kind of a mess, actually. Anna’s father vanished 15 years prior, leaving her to raise Anna alone, which she didn’t do so well. She provided food and shelter, but not much in the way of emotional support. Betty is now on her fourth marriage, to Christopher’s father. This was all what I planned out.

What I didn’t plan is that she’s actually kind of crazy. All the years of coping while Anna’s father was missing, before she had him declared legally dead so she could remarry, left her in a pattern of seeing the world in ways that support her own self-pity, rather than seeing things for how they actually are. She’s not clinically crazy, not really, she’s just unreliable because she willfully ignores or misinterprets anything that doesn’t support her own narrative. I hadn’t intended this, but it works. It helps set the stage for some important stuff that happens at the end of chapter one.

I like this new discovery about Betty, but for all that, I’m still not totally happy with her as a character. She’s just as minor a character as Christopher, but her relationship to Anna is so much more important that I know she really has to “pop” as a character, and she isn’t yet. I have some work to do with Betty. Maybe she’ll come to life tomorrow and make it easy on me. Or maybe not, and I’ll just have to out-think her when I revise later.

To explore new words

Plot-wise, things are about where I expected them to be. I got the inciting incident—an identity crisis—out of the way and tomorrow, I’ll tackle revealing the story’s central mystery. That’s all good, and I know this isn’t the time to stress about Betty’s present one-dimensionality or Anna’s potential violent tendencies. That can come later.

But this, this is the time of the first draft. This is the time for discovery. This is the fun part.

If you want to follow my progress or read the first few thousand words of the book (warning: I meant it about crappy first drafts), you can do so here.

November 02, 2009 23:17 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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