Saturday, 28 February 2015

When Draft One is Only The Job Interview for your Characters

Now that I've passed the 60% mark for Draft Two of Redemption, I'm starting to realise how completely different the story is from Draft One - whilst at the same time essentially the same. Confused? I don't blame you. I shall explain...

The original key plot points are still there, unchanged in their purpose or meaning within the story as a whole. The settings and locales are still the same. And I haven't added or removed any characters or changed their names, ages or occupations. And yet, when I compare my first draft rantings to my second, they read so differently in style and context as to almost seem as if both were written by completely different writers. So far I like the second writer's version much more, I have to say (just as well, or may have to either give up writing or find a way to travel backwards through time to do the stages in the opposite order.) But what's changed, exactly? What is it about my revised version that was missing from that first draft? I've felt a need to figure this out from the moment I noticed it, if only so that I can apply the lessons learned to future novels. And this week, on completing a very particular chapter, it finally dawned on me.

It's the characters. I've finally got to know them as people, rather than just walking, talking plot devices.

If you've been writing stories of any kind for any amount of time, you will have doubtless heard the advice about creating detailed profiles for your characters. The advocates of this approach proclaim you must know everything about every important character in your story; not just the basics like their name, age and physical attributes, but even the most minute stuff. Like where they went to school, their shoe size, their most embarrassing memory, whether they'd be Team Jennifer or Team Angelina...

I did that thing. Well, most of it anyway. If I'm honest, I didn't bother with many of the trivialities. My protagonist has lived a pretty hellish life even before she got to her current place in the story, so is it really going to help me to know what her favourite tv programme would be - if she ever got the chance to even see a working tv, never mind watch it?

The thing is though, I did all of that malarkey after I'd worked out the basic plot, filling in the information as I came to it while writing the first draft. There's a popular school of thought that says you shouldn't even begin to write the words 'Chapter One' until you have these complete biographies of every significant character in the story, all written up like handy mini-Bibles for you to refer to with each twist and turn of your plot. I'm sure that works like a charm for some writers, but it doesn't really match the way I dream up stories. I usually start with a 'What if..?' and chase the premise to its ultimate conclusion via a series of even more 'what if..?'s piled on top. Part of that process involves asking questions like "What kind of person could find themselves in that situation in the first place?" "What sort of things would they do to get out of that situation?" and "How could their solutions to those problems make the resulting situation even worse?" (Bwah ha haaaaa..!)

Those are things you can't really figure out until you've actually put your little LEGO-men onto your Head-Stage and watched them improv their little plastic socks off. So, if you ultimately discover you need a Benedict Cumberbatch to drive your plot forward, you're going to be pretty gutted if you've only got a pre-made Bruce Willis available in your character-bank.

So, while I had a basic idea of what sort of characters I might need to populate Redemption as I began to write it, I didn't really get to know them as individuals until I'd spent some time with them, watching them on my Head-Stage and making notes about their performances. Hence the job interview analogy in the title of this post (see, it wasn't just a random thing..!)

The benefits of this approach are that you have a much better chance of putting the right person into the right job, and that, should there be some areas where they're not quite compatible with certain duties, you can make alternative plans rather than writing yourself into a black hole (i.e. delegate tasks to another, more suitable candidate, or allow them their awkward little foibles but then hit them from another angle with something more 'suited' to their personality... *strokes imaginary white cat and cackles*)

The downside, of course, is that your characters will be... well, little more than LEGO people for most of your first draft, as you watch them get to grips with your script and attempt to deliver the performance of their career. By the time I was ready to do my first read-through of Draft One, I'd spent enough time with them to know what they were really like, and was able to get completely frustrated when they weren't performing their roles to their full potential thanks to the lousy script some knuckle-headed chump had given them. ("Why does my protagonist cry so bloody much - at just about everything? Whoa, Mr Doctor-Character, do you not think that's waaaay inappropriate behaviour? And as for you, Mr Supporting Character - no sweetheart, you are not a stand-up comedian...") Take some familiar-ish stereotypes and give them a few double-espressos with Red Bull chasers, and that was pretty much the Draft One population of Redemption.

For the second draft I had all the pieces of the plot already in place, which meant I could let them marinate while I focused more deeply on the characters playing them out - and the biggest shift was in viewpoint and motivation. In the first draft my approach had been pretty rudimentary; the protagonist would do or say something and the other character would do or say something in response that fitted in with both the plot and what I'd discovered about their personality so far. This character was tactless and socially inept? Boom, he'd do/say something tactless and socially inept then. Job done!

But by the time I got to starting the second draft, I'd learned something about characters - all characters, not just the ones in my novel. That, no matter who they are as far as the structure of the story works, in their eyes they are the protagonist - the only life they're living is theirs, and they're the star of that, baby! So now, for every interaction between my protagonist and other characters, I had to consider the feelings of two or more people, not just one. To think beyond "What is this typically socially awkward and blunt character going to say and do in this particular situation with my protagonist?" and instead think "how is that character likely to feel about this situation? Would he misinterpret the words/actions of my protagonist? And if he did, would he still respond the same way - or would he be defensive or fearful instead?" Sometimes this took my plot in new directions that I hadn't even anticipated - but even when that happened, the new twists still worked within the plot structure I had. If anything, they even explained parts that previously didn't have as much depth as I wanted.

As a result, some characters who started out as mere extras in my story have found themselves with bigger, more defined roles in this second draft. One character in particular has evolved in ways I could never have foreseen. In my first draft he was little more than occasional light relief, a bit of comedy filler to make the major characters look good. But once I started to see the way his mind worked and the reasons he became the person he'd become, I realised how much potential influence he could have on many existing plot points. He went from being a walk-on stooge to an unlikely but helpful ally for the protagonist and her friends, and became a much more interesting character as a result.

I still have a way to go, of course. Even once draft two is finished, there'll be further edits and polishes before I dip my toes into the cold cold waters of beta-reading... and then probably further editing and polishing. But it's an exciting journey, getting under the skin of my characters and letting them riff with the existing script to see what develops.

So, all you fellow writers out there... do you have a character from one of your stories who surprised you with their capabilities once you got to know them? One you grew to love (or hate) once you saw their true potential? Feel free to share them in the comments - I'd love to meet them.

Monday, 16 February 2015

4 Ways to Smack Your Writing Grinch Down

It aint easy, this whole writing-a-novel malarkey.

It's not supposed to be easy, obviously, otherwise everyone and Pavlov's dog would be doing it and MyFace and TwitterBook would be a whole lot emptier. Writing a novel that you hope someday will get published is definitely not an endeavour for softies or quitters, because with every novel you attempt to write you get a free gift. You didn't ask for it, and once you know you have it you certainly don't want it, but there's no shop to take it back to so you're stuck with it. I'm talking, of course, about your Writing Grinch.

You know that nagging voice in your head that tells you your writing sucks? That no-one's ever going to read your crappy novel anyway, even if you actually finish it, which you probably won't because it sucks so much? That's your Writing Grinch. Stephen King and many other writers talk about having your Writing Muse show up if you spend enough time putting in the graft - well, the bad news is your Writing Grinch does a pretty good impression of your Muse, and it can be hard to tell them apart sometimes (because even your Muse can be hard on you.) Tricksy little so-and-so, that Grinch. So what we need to do is arm ourselves against him; know his battle tactics and be ready to kick his butt like Buckaroo when he comes a-calling. (Note: I'm using 'he' throughout this because my Grinch happens to be a he. Yours might be a 'she' or even an 'it.' Adjust as necessary.)

My Grinch has been something of a regular companion during my draft two process ('bless' his little steel-capped bovver-boots.) So, because I'm the kind of person who cries at charity appeal adverts on the telly, I feel a need to encourage anyone out there who's thinking of abandoning their novel along with their writing dreams. I'm not quitting on mine, so I can't let you quit on yours without a fight!

So, without further ado, let's run down through the Grinch's most common mantras...

1 - "This novel is unpublishable. No agent/publisher is ever going to want it, because it's not what anyone would want to read."
...And so, what's the point of even finishing it, right? Give up, and start on something that has got a chance of seeing the light of published day. Except... didn't your Grinch say that about the last one you didn't finish as well - and the one before that, and the one before..? I think there's a pattern emerging here. Thing is... he might well be right. This novel you're currently slogging your guts out might not ever get published - in fact, if it's your first, the odds are pretty high that it won't. But the only way to even have a hope of ever getting the medal is to finish the race. Keeping your eye on the prize is a fantastic way to motivate yourself to keep on running towards that finish line, but if that's all you're in it for... well, it won't sustain you when that Grinch starts whispering in your ear and sapping your confidence. After all, nobody knocks themselves out to get a prize they no longer believe they'll win.

So at least for now, forget the prize. It's experiencing the whole journey, from the very beginning right to its end, that matters. Just keep putting one word in front of the other, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Map out the journey and learn from each stage of it, so that you can take your experiences with you for the next one. And the next and the next. Because the best way to get to the Holy Grail of being published is to teach yourself to stay on the journey towards it - time after time after time...

2 - "You know, everybody laughs at you behind your back - you and your crazy dreams about getting your novel published. They all think you're wasting your time."
It's lovely when you have loyal friends, family and spouse around you, encouraging you and being totally supportive of your writing endeavours. Lots of writers have them in their lives - and, unfortunately, lots don't. If you're in the second category... well, there's not a lot you can do to remedy that situation, I'm afraid. Actually, finally get your work published? That'll hush their sniggering, disapproving mouths, right? Pfffft, no. Unless you can morph into the literary love-child of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King overnight (and flash the resultant wads of banknotes in the faces of your naysayers as proof) you can merely expect comments along the lines of "well, I think I might write a book as well then, if it's that easy to get published..." Seriously, I wish I was joking - but I'm not. Been there, heard it, and  - trust me, it's like a knife in the heart every time.

So you can't write for those people. You can't write to win them over, prove a point to them or to finally show them - finally - that you're not just a feckless dreamer who'll never amount to anything worth talking about. Harsh as it sounds, your best strategy is to teach yourself to not give a flying eff-word about what they think. Ever. You are a writer, and you don't need their approval - or anyone else's, for that matter - to do what you do. And if there's any part of you that's doing that, even if it's because you think it'll make even the tiniest difference in the long term, stop it. Stop that shizzle right now.

The only people that will ever matter when it comes to your writing is the people who want to read your writing. You won't know most of them - you'll probably never even meet most of them. But they're the people you write for. Not the unbelievers in your life. Screw them.

3 - "Okay, so you finish this novel - and then what? What if this is the only novel you have in you? What if, after this one, all your inspiration dries up and you can never write another one ever again?"
Because creativity, after all, is like a beautiful snowflake - unique and special and, once it's had its moment of glory melts away into nothing and disappears forever...

Mmmm... no, not really. You're not necessarily destined to 'use up' all the currency in your Bank of Imagination on just one novel, any more than you would eat the most delicious meal in the best restaurant in the world and then immediately say "Well that's it - nothing will ever come close to this experience and so from this moment on there is no point in eating anything else ever again. I can only hope it doesn't take too long to die of starvation." As long as you've got senses to engage and a brain to interpret them, your creativity is more like a well that fills up whenever you allow the rain to pour in (and let's face it, the only way for that not to happen is if you take steps to stop it getting in.)

Still not convinced? Okay then, let's imagine for a moment that you are one of those rarities that truly only does have one novel 'in you' and nothing more. Is that such a terrible thing? You'd certainly be in good company. Among other famous authors who only ever published one novel are; Harper Lee, with To Kill A Mockingbird, (although the world is currently aflame with rumours about a second one about to be published, some fifty-five years later) Emily Bronte with Wuthering Heights, Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray, Margaret Mitchell with Gone With The Wind, Boris Pasternak with Dr Zhivago, Anna Sewell with Black Beauty...

Would the literary world have been better off if they'd not bothered to finish those novels, just because they didn't go on to write any more after that?

4 - "It's taking too long! You're not writing fast enough for long enough! Your word count is pitiful! You'll be a-hundred-and-ninety-three before you ever finish this novel - hell, you'll probably die before you finish it!"
You've seen those books on Amazon too, admit it  - 'How to Write 2,000 Words an Hour and Pump Out a Book Every Thirty Days and be a Stinking Rich Kindle Millionaire Woohoo Bring on the Wonga!' And I'm not about to laugh in the faces of such books and say it's all a pack of lies. Some people do, in fact, write at least 2,000 words an hour and a book every thirty days (although in fairness, most of them are the authors of those types of books.) James Patterson seems to bring out a new novel roughly every two-and-half minutes, but that's because he has an entire army of ghostwriters in a magical fortress somewhere, who each take an outline he dashes off in a day or so and then beaver away at writing the books that he no doubt edits a bit before getting them published under his 'brand name.' (Harsh? Perhaps, but unless he actually went out and kidnapped those writers and keeps them manacled by their ankles to a desk, releasing them only for meals, sleep and toilet breaks I can't really diss him too much for having a factory-production-line approach to novel writing. I just hope he's paying them well for it and they genuinely don't mind not receiving much credit for their efforts... but even if that's not the case, I'm assuming they still have the choice to break away and strike out on their own.)

Some people can be full-time writers, some can only be part-time writers, and some have to squeeze in precious writing time between a gazillion other commitments. That will have some bearing on how quickly (or not) a writer can progress with their novels. Some writers are fantastically prolific: the mystery author John Creasey wrote six hundred novels in his lifetime, romance author Barbara Cartland wrote seven-hundred-and twenty-three and childrens' author Enid Blyton wrote over eight-hundred. (I'll let you have a moment for your mind to boggle.)

And then we have James Joyce, author of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. His average wordcount was widely rumoured to be six words a day (I don't know about you, but that makes me feel like a writing machine by comparison.) George R.R. Martin has also been accused of being a slow writer (albeit mainly by fans desperate for the next instalment in his Game of Thrones series) along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Crichton. All of which suggests that there's room for tortoises as well as hares in the writing world.

The point is, whether you write for eight hours a day or two hours a day (mine is the latter) you can only write what you write in that time. As long as that's what you do for at least the majority of your allotted time - as opposed to checking your emails, surfing the web or sneaking off to watch Bargain Hunt and claiming it was 'for research' - there's not much more you can do. No honestly, there really isn't. I know all those books claim everyone can write 2,000 words a day if they put their mind to it - but what those books don't tell you is that anything between 300-1800 of those words will be utter drivel that you'll end up deleting anyway. Some of us know that already, and simply don't allow the drivel to make it onto the page in the first place. That's what reduces the wordcount for us.

By all means measure your progress - I use an Excel spreadsheet to mark in how many hours a week I spent writing and my wordcount at the end of each 'session.' That's a brilliant thing to do to keep yourself on track and strengthen your commitment to finishing your novel, because it puts you in the mindset of treating your writing like a job that you 'clock in' for. It's also the best way to work out exactly how much you are capable of producing in the time you have available; a few months of  tracking your wordcount-per-time-allotted will give you an average that's realistic and achievable for you. This will help you when it comes to writing towards deadlines - whether self-imposed or set by external sources - because you'll know if you're likely to meet it, and how much more time to negotiate for if you're not.

If you can improve on your wordcount over time - fantastic! But if you can't... accept it and don't use it like a measuring stick to hold up against other writers and then beat yourself over the head with. Forget about what everyone else is doing - you are you. And if you're more James Joyce than Enid Blyton... that's okay, it really is.

Well, those are my big Grinch Moans... what are yours? Are there things I've missed? I'd love to know.