Thursday, August 19, 2010

Character development and plot

I'm doing very little drafting lately, which dings up the self-confidence some, but I am getting legitimate work done. I still have a lot to figure out about my characters and what their issues are at the start of the book. I should have gotten this done months ago, but that's where I am. The last few days have seen some progress, I think.

I got on this track a few weeks ago when a writer friend heard the summary of my idea and reminded me, "Do you know what her problem is? Make sure she's got something going on." What's key for me right now about that advice, is the timing of her problem -- of the something going on. Obviously, during the course of the story characters have problems. External and internal conflicts. But it's sinking in for me in a conscious way for the first time that it's better if they arrive at the start of the story's present action with problems. I want something going on with them that makes them open to whatever action is proposed to them at the story's kick off.

Let's say, for example, that a secondary character says to the main character, "Let's go rob that liquor store." It's easier to get going if the answer he gives is a new answer (let's say, "yes" for our example) and if there is a good reason for him giving a new answer that he never would have given before. What happened yesterday, the day before the present action begins, to make him open to going a new direction. Maybe a scolding by his mom about his choice of friends is making him feel oppositional.

And not necessarily a dramatic new direction. Just a little stepping off of the usual path can be enough. The secondary friend says, "Let's go to the movies for once. You sit at home too much." What makes the main character agree for once? They arrive at the story's start with some kind of vulnerability to change.

Thinking of it that way is helping me get focused and get my story going, right now. This is too new idea for me to insist that it's universal or very common. I'd have to go through some stories to see how it plays out. Let's try one real quick: The Great Gatsby. First of all, I'm going to treat Carroway is the main character, which I'll argue about another time. Given that, roughly, you could say that Carroway is open to being sympathetic to Gatsby because he's annoyed with Tom and Daisy. But that annoyance really is triggered in the present action. What he arrives on the scene with is a sense of disconnection from the east coast vs. the midwest. A heightened sensitivity to elitism. It's a problem for him because his circumstances are encouraging him to ally himself more with the elites, and he feels conflicted. That's set up in the first grafs of the book, and it's back story, not present action, though it gets developed during the present action.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What does the character want

Knowing what the character wants is so elemental and obviously necessary that I don't really have much to add to that. I just wanted to record that I've been struggling with that question lately. Pretty late in the game, apparently, but you take it when it comes.

Word counts and typing

I'm typing in a few scenes from my manuscript. It's not a full-bore effort to get it all typed in. I just want to see what some of the opening pages might possibly be and what they could read like if I sharpened them.

In the course of that I notice and have counted more deliberately than I did with the first book the difference between the word count of the manuscript (which is an estimate) and the actual word count on the computer. Once I type it in, it's running about 30% longer. That's mostly because I type I add and clarify and expand upon. It's really a second draft with a lot more material. It's only a small sample so far, but I expect the rest of it to run something like that.

On the other hand, I don't expect to type it all in. I'll probably be more discriminating about what's worth the effort. In theory, I have 32,000 words, but the 4,000 words I've typed is probably the best of the lot.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Too much dialogue

For work related reasons I'm re-reading Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction, a book I highly recommend. (More practically oriented than most rah-rah writing guides. If you're beyond need encouragement and are ready for advice, this is a great guide.) One section that never sunk in before is resonating with me now -- to beware of too much dialogue.

I knew this in a less conscious way from my first book. After writing a scene, I would look at it and have an uneasy feeling about how much dialogue was in it. It didn't seem quite right, though I couldn't explain why. The rewrites and revisions happened blindly without really understanding what I needed to do about the seeming excess of dialogue, and eventually I got it fixed, but it was like punching my way out of a paper bag.

One, as Burroway makes clear, dialogue should do more than one thing at a time -- to convey the literal meaning of the words plus something else like complicating the story or characterization. She doesn't say this, but I think it's implied: dialogue that drags on and on tends to be dialogue only doing one thing.

Two, she talks about how dialogue loses its power after awhile, so you want to save it for what is key to have in the character's voice. Another way of thinking about is the relationship between voice and reader energy. It's the narrator's voice that the reader has signed on for and invested themselves in. It takes reader energy to switch your attention from that voice to a character's voice. (Even if it's first-person narration, that narrator narrates in a voice somewhat different from self that they quote in the dialogue.) You want to ask the reader to leave the narrator's voice only when they're going to get some energy back in the form of important developments.

This is on my mind now because as I draft my current project, I find myself writing pages and pages of dialogue, and I d0 so with a sick feeling that it all will have to be thrown out later. I realize that what I'm doing isn't so much writing -- not even in the sense of drafting -- as daydreaming on paper. I don't really know what's happening in a scene, so I imagine the two characters talking to each other and write down what they would say. It's like a real-time transcript. In other words, this is another symptom of the key problem I keep talking about here -- that I don't know the story. A real-time transcript is the opposite of a story.

Transcribing in this way may be a way of finding a story. (And maybe not. It feels like sorting at random through all the sand on the beach.) But it's not really writing. I think maybe my mantra of "just add sentences" might be keeping me stuck in a spot that is not very productive.

Word count update: Almost no work done last week because of deadlines on paying work. A little bit of work this morning, but no more is expected this week because of a family trip. I have 32,000 words now, but that has to be heavily discounted, as explained before.