As I start brainstorming new ideas for my next writing project, I’ve found myself wondering: Will anyone want to read this?
It’s a little odd, for me, since this is not a question I usually bother with. My more typical “interrogative sentences, phrases, or gestures” are:
– Who is this story about?
– What are they doing?
– Why are they doing that?
– Do I care about this, yet? Alright, then what’s next?
– How can I work XYZ in?
– Ooh, wait – what if…?!
– What goes horrifically wrong?
– How do they feel about that?
– How do they deal with it?
– Wait, does that make any sense? Okay, good, it’s explainable. So now what?
– How many miles between Vegas and Yellowstone, again?
– How in the world does this end?
Any thoughts about my future audience will run more along these lines:
– When and how do I plant this clue so they won’t see the surprise coming, but it won’t feel out of the blue?
– Are people going to be able to empathize with this character?
– Will they have any chance in heck of pronouncing this name correctly?
For the most part, though, I don’t think much about the readers while writing, other than to remind myself to keep the book readable. The first reader I’m aiming to please is me, since I’ll probably be spending more time with this book than anyone. The second is Tirzah, since she’s my writing buddy/beta tester/soul sister and practically has joint custody of some of my characters.
Beyond that, yeah, I’d love to have more satisfied readers than an audience of two. But I can’t predict what everyone will like. And even if I did, I don’t know that I’d let that dictate my writing.
If all I wanted was to sell books, it would be a different story. Then it would be mostly, or possibly all, about writing what a big chunk of the population would want to read. And there would be nothing wrong with that, if selling books were my first goal. But it isn’t.
My first goal is to write stories I love. My second goal is to have other people love them, too. Goal 2.2 involves making money off of that love, and Goal 3 involves Walt Disney Animation Studios and Broadway.
So maybe I’m asking myself the wrong question, at this brainstorming stage. Maybe what I need to be asking is:
– How can I thrill myself?
– Which characters will I want to hang out with forever?
– What book can I pull out of me that will make me so super proud that I wrote it?
Selfish-seeming questions, on the surface. But I believe that the best work comes forward when the artist’s heart is wholly behind it. In the end, my readers will be far better off for my thinking of them second.
Back to thinking of first things first, then: Who is this story about?…
The Making Of…: “Write a Novel – it Builds Character”
Some writers put Story above all else. The main aim of others is to get a message across. But while I would certainly consider a good story necessary, and an important, masterfully-conveyed message a great bonus, the number one focus in my writing has ever been the characters.
I love fictional characters – the good ones, anyway. And by “good”, I do not necessarily mean that they are noble and pure of heart; I’m all for a great villain or antihero, too. One can have bad a “combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another” and still be an awesome “person portrayed in an artistic piece, such as a drama or novel”.
The main thing they need to have is realness.
I am not necessarily recommending that the characters become quite as real to the readers as they are to their authors. Mild schizophrenia is not for everyone. Please speak to your doctor before hanging around an imaginary Sherwood with your immaterial buddies. That having been said, a writer has to create something – and someones – that readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief for, or else all you’ve got is a dry summary of a tale full of stick figures standing in for actual people.
A good story is all about the people. After all, the story is theirs; we’re just reading it. …Or, in some cases, writing it.
So, where do I get my characters? Is it as simple as throwing together a name, hair and eye colors, and “one thing you should know about me…” and saying “ta-da”?
No, thank goodness. That would seriously take a lot of the fun out of my vocation.
I happen to enjoy taking a little time over the discovery of my protagonists, supporting cast, and random extras who may or may not land a bigger role someday if their planets align. Cool as it would be to have a mysterious stranger walk up to me in a dream and tell me, “Hey, this is me, this is my story: Write it up”, I think that would leave me feeling less like an author and more like a secretary taking dictation. Not exactly what I was going for, here.
I can approach character creation from several different ways.
In one instance, I was struck with a word that demanded to be a name, and I let that name sit in my “to be utilized in its due time” file until an unrelated inspiration collided with the first, and my talking fox was born. (Disclaimer: This character is from a project separate from “Ballad”. There are no talking foxes in this particular novel. Sorry if I got anybody’s hopes up.)
Much more often, I’ll have a vague idea for a story, determine the roles that need filling, and set to work tackling the vacancies, one by one. I’ll muse over different physical appearance combos, pore over baby name books and websites and wait for something to strike a chord, add a pinch of this attribute from me, and a dash of this attribute from some anonymous guy I can’t stand, and a feature reminiscent of insert-name-of-movie-character here, only cooler because… You get the gist.
I figure out what I’ll need the characters to do or feel (based on the bare bones of the story I’ll have plotted up to that point, or the dynamic I hope to achieve within various relationships), and I’ll look at the character and his/her environment and try to understand where the actions and attitudes are coming from. Truthfully, I don’t always know all the answers. Correction: I never know all the answers. I can get to know a character as well as I know my own self, and that will still leave a lot of holes in their psychological makeup. I guess that’s a good thing; if I understood them completely, how real could they really be?
I had a bit of a head start when putting together the cast of “Ballad”. Countless storytellers before me had unintentionally hooked me up with ready-to-go names: Robin Hood, Arthur Pendragon, etc. All I had to do was decide on my personal spelling preferences for people like Allyn-a-Dale and Morganne le Fey, and I was ready to fly ahead to the next step.
Uncovering the personalities of my main characters, the Merry Men, was my favorite part. I had only the haziest of preconceived notions, going in. As you’ll recall, I was on a crazy deadline (NaNoWriMo, y’all); for all of my compulsive planning, my actors were basically stuck doing improv. Fortunately, improvisation turned out to be one of my Will Scarlet’s greatest strengths, so he proved invaluable to me. (You want to crank out maximum word-count in minimum time? Partner with Will. Your back will be had.) Robin stepped up when I was looking for an authoritative voice of reason; Marion provided me with an extra dose of humanization; Little John was acting as a straight man one minute and zinging his comrades in brilliant deadpan the next; Gant-o’-the-Lute showed up out of the blue to steal all those scenes in which I’d never intended to include him (which, as many could attest, is just Lute all over)…
And then there was Allyn. The poor boy had a lot of live up to. When your name’s in the novel’s title like that, you kind of have to deliver, and frankly, I wasn’t sure if he could. That had more to do with doubt in myself than in him; I’ve had a rough time, in the past, imbuing my leading men and ladies with the depth or pizzazz displayed by their costars. I worried that I’d accidentally turn a wuss loose in the spotlight. (Every author’s worst nightmare! That, and the one where you meant to hit “save”, but it turned out to be that other button that erases half your work. Horror…)
But my fears were for naught. Artistically sensitive and traumatized by his sadistic author’s plot choices though he was, Allyn let me know from Chapter One that he intended to make something of himself. (To which I said, “You go, boy.”) Together, with all the delicacy of archeologists at some big-deal dig, we uncovered bit by bit what my newest minstrel was made of. (Some of our findings actually came after the book was over, so I totally had to write a sequel.) By the time the novel ended – and for several chapters before that, really – I didn’t just have cardboard cutout people standing around to prop up my fabulous story idea: I had characters!
And that, my friends, is pretty much why I do what I do.
What about you, fellow writers and readers? How do you like your character discovery?
At its heart, it was a good story – a twisting tale of life and love, death and drama, and supernatural secrets so well kept that even the author wasn’t aware of them until several books into the series. The characters were strong. The dialogue was golden. Unfortunately, the author – immature in her craft – was all natural talent and no practiced skill, and so the story was told rather poorly indeed. Were it ever to see the light of day and a bookstore’s shelf, the narrative would need a major overhaul.
Uncertain that the tale’s renaissance would ever come, but not without all hope that it would, the author created a folder dubiously named the Possibly Salvageable Junk Pile. There she placed the numerous documents containing the mutilated fragments of the storyline, and there they would remain until such a time as the author felt ready to turn the heap of refuse into a book worthy of the story it would contain.
And that author… *solemn nods* …was me.
Epilogue: A handful of years later, the day of salvation is nigh. As of this post’s drafting*, I am in the process of digging through the hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned but collectively sorry old words in preparation to raise the story back to life. …Which, at this outlining stage, feels disconcertingly like robbing graves to piece together a creature ripe for reanimation by lightning.
(*Current progress report: Outlining behind me. Deep into section 1-of-3 of the book. Encouragement and reassurances from Writing Buddy frequently all that stands between me and writerly despair. Morale is fickle.)
I’ve never attempted “the act or process of reconsidering and changing or modifying” like this before. Sure, I’ve written a book halfway, scrapped it, and started over. But that’s one book, during a single sitting, as it were. This is several books, to be condensed into one in three parts, long after I’ve moved on to countless other projects. It’s an odd combination of familiar and alien territory.
It will be hard to refrain from copy-and-pasting significant chunks of text and working outward from there, but refrain I shall, lest I undermine the whole point of this revision. If I want a better version of the story, then a better writer has to write it, and I’m relieved to note that I am a much better writer now than I was a quarter of my life ago. (That bodes well for my writing another quarter of my life into the future. *big thumbs-up smile*)
My view on the project before me is pretty well summed up this way: “Early drafts often have something good going for them, but they very rarely have everything going for them [I jump in to hug the use of the word “rarely”. Blanket statements get under my skin. Allow for the exceptional. Now, back to the quote…]; the real beginning of revision comes when you can see that. From that point onward, the key is to take the best core aspect of your work more seriously than you take the little particulars of a given draft. You honor your stories not by clinging to your early attempts to capture things, but instead by letting them go, by asking yourself what you’re really after and doing whatever it takes to get there.” (David Ebenbach, “Re-Envisioning in Revision”)
So that’s where I am, right now – what’s old-made-new in my world. Wish me better luck than Doc Frankenstein.
I’ve decided that I’m going to start giving each of my PerGoSeeMo psalms their own posts, consolidating the page that hitherto hosted them into a list of links to aforesaid posts.
I held off on this originally, because I doubted my motives – what with there being greater visibility for posts vs. the page, perchance leading to more views and potential Ever On Word subscribers. I didn’t want to do such a thing for a selfish reason, when that’s not what this November’s about. (For those who may be wondering what it is about, here’s the scoop.)
But upon further reflection, I do want the psalms to be more visible – not for me, but so others have better odds of gaining something from them. And on another hand, it might almost be considered an inconvenience to me, since my home page would now be covered with a backlog of psalms. It would be like plastering God all over my face, and meekly daring anyone to be turned off by it; putting my blog where my mouth is, or my mouth where my faith is, or something like that.
Well, so be it. “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16)
So, fair warning, my current wonderful subscribers: Your email inboxes will be temporarily flooded with psalms while I get caught up. If you’re like me and start to stress when there’s a pile of unread posts staring you in the face, feel free to trash them; they’ll still be around here when you’re good and ready to deal with them. And of course, you’re also free to read them – or reread them, if you’ve been visiting the page. Do what you will. I’ve no expectations; just doing what I feel called to do.
To get things rolling, then, let’s take it back to the beginning…
* * *
Psalm 1. John 1:4, 14; John 3:19-21
In the beginning, a single word
A word of all others and life and light
A story in full, you spoke into being
Anthologies springing from wakening singing
A tale with a prologue that is, with no start
And an epilogue that, once begun, will not end
And chapter by chapter, the middle unfolds
‘Long a plot line planned down to the smallest detail.
Onto the blankness, the wordsmith inks
The opening phrase, story line’s genesis
An author, of course you would draw on yourself –
On your light, on your life — and infuse your world with it
The words tumbling faster, you set up the stage
Backdrop of perfection you knew would not last
For it’s character nature to stumble their way
To the ever after they have no way of seeing.
But you saw from the first how they’d cling to the darkness,