Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How Writing Is Like Dog-Grooming & Characters Tantrum Like Two-Year-Old's

"How does it come to you?"
"How do you think up your characters?"
"How does it work?" 

These are the first questions people ask me after they read my work.  It seems like magic.  They are in awe.  I agree.  I am in awe of it too.  It comes from outside of myself, I can't take credit for it.

But those are not the answers you are looking for.  Magic?  Outside forces?  Too hokey.  You want to know more.  You've told me.  So I will try to answer thoroughly.  I'm warning you though - in order to "hear" a story and let it come together in front of me, I have to let go of certain hang-ups, like believing sanity at all times is a necessity.  :) 

I used to think that writers conceptualize a story in their own unique ways, none of us exactly the same, which is true.  But it surprised me how much overlap there is.  Whenever I hear another writer talk about their process, I recognize large pieces of mine, and I am filled with a sense of belonging.  If you are a writer (or a reader!), I hope this post makes you feel the same way. 

Writing sits at the cross-section of dogged determination and inspiration.  Writing when you are inspired is a high.  Drug-free and glorious.  But sometimes Inspiration is no where to be found.  I can feel him lurking, but he refuses to show himself.  That's fine.  I coax.  I cajole.  I wait.  But, if he doesn't show, I write cold.  No problem.  He always, always shows up.  Inspiration hates to miss a party.

Between books, I take off a week or two to catch up on my life (a lot of things lapse when I'm writing.)  But, my mind continues to churn. When my household is back in order, I go back to working every day - developing, researching, documenting. When my story is ready, I enter a zone I term "When I Am Writing."
When I am writing, my first writing block is from 4:30 to 6:45 in the morning, seven days a week.  I have two more during the day, but that's my most important one.  I write the least in that block, but every day when I get up and pull that laptop onto my lap, I am making the very conscious decision that I am a writer.  I am a force.  I have superpowers.  What I write then is often only one paragraph, but it is a good one.  And when I write later, I am voracious and productive.  I'll have been chomping at the bit to get back to it all morning.

People ask me all the time about how long it takes to write a novel.  This is a highly individual answer - specific to the author, the material, and the length of the novel.  That said, people in literary circles often throw around a one year timeline.  A first draft can be written by a dedicated author in a few to several months, but it often takes a full year for that book to be developed and researched, written, critiqued, revised, timeline-checked, and proofed.  More than one round of reviews and revisions is common.

Ideally, I write in a red glider chair with my legs stretched across the expanse to a matching chair with a super soft blanket and my computer on my lap.  But, I can write anywhere.  In college I was so finicky about my study environment that I could only study alone and in absolute silence. (Uptight?  A little. :))  But, not with writing.  Any chair, anywhere.

I maintain several files on my computer - Story Ideas, Favorite Books, Favorite Lines, Favorite Movies, Favorite Lyrics, Character Name Ideas, Themes & Ethical Questions, Qualities I Like In A Book, etc. etc.  I add to them all the time.  I use them as armor against writer's block.  They've easily earned their rent for hard-drive space. 

Some writers - the left-brained ones - use detailed plot treatments and outlines, plan every twist and turn in advance, etc.  Some writers - the right-brained ones - start with a blank page and simply start.  They discover the story and their characters as they write.  I have one solid foot in the former camp and several toes in the latter. 

I start with a theme I want to explore.  Then I let my mind wander about what storyline would explore it.  I completely shut out everything around me and let whatever comes bounce around in my mind.  

For my first novel, I brainstormed ideas, went to the library and my local historical society, surfed the web, made lists of possibilities, had a couple false-starts, and then suddenly one idea stood out from the rest.  It took quite a while, but the feeling you get when you find the right idea is unmistakable.  You feel a fire for it.

For my last story, I was walking across my kitchen with no plan of starting anything new and an idea (which turned out to be the backstory which resulted in the novel's action and conflict) came into my mind full-force.  I stopped at the laptop we keep in the kitchen predominantly for our kids and I started typing like a maniac.  It was playing out in my head faster than I could type.  Once it flew by, I'd lose it, so I had to catch as much of it as I could.  What I missed I never did get back, but I got enough.  

This time, I was on an airplane and said to myself, "Back against the wall.  Figure it out.  What are you going to write next?"  I knew that when I was done the one I was working on, I'd go crazy waiting for reviews.  The only way to keep myself even-keeled (and pleasant to live with) was if I had something new to work on.  I read all my writer's block files and summoned an idea.  It took six hours of staring, thinking, and imagining, but I got off the plane with a helium balloon in my belly.  I had it.  It has morphed so much since then that I don't remember what I had that day, but it was "the golden nugget" that is the inspiration at the heart of every story.

At this point, I have a theme and something of the plot and conflict.  Characters are beginning in the back of my mind, but I basically ignore them.  To build the story, I need a firm setting that I can see clearly in my mind.  I set about finding one.  All the while, plot continues to form and twist in my head and I add what comes to my "brain dump" file.

I tend to like fictional places modeled after real ones.  I change the name but use images, Google street views, geographical locations and topography, histories, sociological and weather data, etc. as a guide.  My settings are not replicas of anywhere, but they are like sister-cities to real life places.

Now I let the characters have my attention.  They didn't need my attention to develop so far, but they are mad at me for ignoring them.  Their tantrums keep a constant buzz in my mind.  They are yelling at me, yelling at each other.  The morose ones are standing with crossed arms glaring.  They all want me to understand them and their plights, but they are yelling over each other like two-year-old's.  I wait them out.  When they have calmed down enough to succinctly tell me who they are, what is going on with them, and how they feel about it - I can hear them.  It is a heavenly respite from the buzz.  I'm happy.  They're happy.  From then on, they are calmer and I can hear them perfectly.  This goes on for a long time.  I write down as much as I can remember.  Notice I do not say everything - Everything would be impossible.  They talk all day long, no matter where I am.

"My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living."
-Anais Nin
My sister (and mom and husband) could tell you how many times I have to say, "I'm sorry.  Can you say that again?  I missed it."  Because my characters are talking too loudly in my head!  I honestly couldn't hear what my sister said.  Cue the temporary insanity. :)

When my characters and I are on coherent speaking terms, I sit down and really really develop them.  Again, I shut out everything around me.  I give my characters, one at a time, my full attention and I listen to them.  I watch their life play out in front of me like a movie.  Parents' jobs, personalities and parenting styles.  Birth order.  Physical features.  Life stories.  Tiny details.  Big pictures.  Likes, dislikes.  Jobs.  Strengths, weaknesses.  Educational and career backgrounds.  How they relate to the other characters.  Their tics.  What they say vs. what they mean.  EVERYTHING.  It is exhausting, I admit.  Pages and pages of things that won't ever come up in a story.  But, they will be there.  I promise you that.  There, in between the lines, in the sensation you get when you read and feel that these characters are "real".

When I'm done with that, I work on the storyline.  I say storyline, not plot, because by this point my brain dump document is a very very long list of bullet points.  It has grown well beyond plot, but it is a mess.

I groom my dog myself.  He is huge.  It takes hours and I'm not sure he likes it.  But we bond.  The trick is to take what he gives me and praise him for it.  I rarely finish an entire part of him at once.  I'm working on his leg and he moves.  I let it go.  His tail swishes in front of me, I take it.  He pulls it away and gives me his belly, I get down low.  Writing is like that.  What comes to me first is almost always the peak conflict.  Then, the backstory.  But neither in completion.  Whatever the story gives me, I take it.  I'm grateful and patient.  I'll put it all in order later.

When the plot-popping in my brain finally slows down (this takes weeks, months, a year), I put the bullet points in some kind of chronological guess.  I decide the big things - first person, third person, single narrator, alternating narrator, present tense, past tense, at what point on the arc to start the story (defining story vs. backstory), a general idea of the ending, the mood I want, the genre, etc.  I often write a "pitch" for myself to clarify what my story is about.  At last, I start writing.  I never make a more detailed outline than I got from the brain dump (although I constantly add to it) or fine-tune the ending because I let the story reveal itself to me.  The story is in charge.  It tells me where it is set.  It tells me what comes next.  It tells me whose story it is.  The story always rules the day.  Even when it is inconvenient.

I write on a schedule, but when I am writing I steal every moment that I can.  Too many moments.  There are costs to being a writer.  Not just the deeply painful criticisms that are necessary to make your good story great.  But, even when I am present, I am not 100% present.  My characters believe they own me and when I am writing, they never let me completely free.  Thankfully, my husband and closest friends love me along with all the voices in my head.  By the end, my husband could probably recognize my lead character at first sight if he were ever to run into her at the market.  I once heard a Chinese saying that a man needs to have a big stomach.  My man needs big ears!  :)

It does get better when I finish a book.  My characters bow graciously and slink away, leaving room for the new ones.  I believe they leave happier, feeling heard and appreciated.  I like to leave my readers with a similar feeling.  One of my favorite reviewer comments was "I've been walking around in my own little glow.  I started missing your characters, the moment I turned the last page."  AND THAT, my torch-bearers, IS THE REWARD!

They are soul-crushing.  They are also inevitable and make your work better.  Really, really listen.  Consider.  Ego has no place here.  Then, take what feels right to you, and dive back in.


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
- Ernest Hemingway
And cry and laugh and love.  And, yes, bleed.

If you have dreams to write, WRITE.  Listen for your story and take what it gives you.  It wants to be told.  Only you can do it.

-M.M. Finck

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! I so enjoyed getting a glipse into your head : ) Go Peggy Go!!! -Liza