Characters and Where to Find Them

I work at a gas station. The specifics of which chain don’t matter. I got talking with my co-worker about how some of the most interesting people come through the store, and it’s true.  Anyone who works in a customer service job could probably fill novels full of stories of some of the interesting characters that come through the doors.

For example, there’s one guy that comes in who is a Korean War vet. He has a walking cane, and he always has to have his paper put in a plastic bag, and the cashier always has to pull out the money for his paper for him. Sometimes he asks for help in opening the door, unless someone holds the door for him on their way in. He’s also a regular at my gas station, and up until I got switched to evenings, you could predict what day and what time he would come in. He was like clock work.

There are  regulars that come through that are too busy chatting on their cell phones and throwing money at me while asking for things in between conversation gaps. I never know who these people are, and, admittedly, it infuriates me because I find that thing rude. If I weren’t more occupied with my job, I might be tempted to imagine what kind of person they are.

Imagine just taking some random person you come in contact with at your job that you don’t know. Build an entire character by building them from the outside in. It’s a lot like speculating what’s making the unknown person tick. The added bonus is you don’t have to worry about being wrong. That unknown person in the office is now becoming a fully formed character in your mind, independent of the person that sparked the inspiration. It’s a great way to brainstorm characters for a story if you’re lacking ideas. If you have enough of them, you can build up a reserve of characters that you can borrow and adapt as you find yourself casting characters for other stories.

So the next time you’re at a gas station, a fast food restaurant or out shopping, look around. You never know what inspiration you’ll find for your next story.

Finish what you start

Apologies for the long hiatus. Between taking a well earned break from writing during National Novel Writing Month, the holidays, my Hufflepuff themed tumblr newsletter and the job hunt (or at least the search for a second job.), life’s been a little hectic. But it is a new year, and if my boss continues to keep me hovering around 20-ish hours, I have no excuses for not updating this blog more often.

Last week, for the first time, I decided to combine two of my nanowrimo novels into one Scrivener file, which was no easy feat, considering that Scrivener for Windows has yet to have the Mac version’s ability to combine projects. Anytime you combine two stories, whether it’s to make one larger novel, or to keep multiple novels in one place, it’s exhausting and daunting.

Exhausting because merging two stories together into one file isn’t easy. If you’re not using a sophisticated writing program like Scrivener, you may skip over the exhuastion and go straight to feeling overwhelmed and daunted by the task of making two story lines make a lick of sense.  This past year I wrote, for all intents and purposes of NaNoWriMo, the next story in the Myth of the Metals story.

I stored this story in a separate Scrivener project file so that I could get an accurate word count for the nano site and to have it properly validated to prove that I did, in fact, write 50K this year. With no fancy project combining feature, I first tried importing the files individually from the project folder. Unfortunately, the file names were random numbers, and numerical order did not appear to promise that the files were in chronological order. After figuring this out, I resorted to the tried and true method and dragging and dropping, which ended up working.

But none of this work is going to mean anything if I can’t even finish the drafts. I’ll have some better luck finishing the first book, since I’ve now written the second book, which has given me some sense of where I can neatly sign “the end” and call the novel done. The second one? I’m not so certain. And that’s often the tricky thing about first drafts. Unless you’ve outlined your entire novel,  the end of the first draft often feels like this nebulous place at the end of your story – you know it has to exist, it’s there somewhere, the problem lies in that finding the end is a lot like feeling around in the dark and you can’t see anything, not even your hands in front of your face.

The solution may seem like going back and tightening what you already have, but your story needs to end somewhere. If your in the midst of the conflict of your story the last thing you want to do is end mid-stream. Resolve your conflict. It may be a draft but even an incomplete draft will leave you guessing if you don’t have a beginning and an end. Nothing will make your editing process easier than knowing where your story starts, and where your story ends.

Don’t Share Everything at Once.

“Do not tell anyone about this, Viatrix. If anyone found out I was bringing in a foreigner to teach you, the guardians would probably try to take our jobs. Now get back to your cave before people start asking questions about why you were chosen. I can only imagine the riot it might incite if they find out why you were chosen.

Don’t disappoint us.

-Decimus, Livinius, Ausonius”

I just wrote this for my NaNoWriMo novel. I’m very proud of this bit. I briefly toyed with the notion of sharing everything involved with my MC’s orders for the special military group she’s been assigned to.

I’ve decided against it. Why?

Because her training includes training for her weaknesses, in addition to building on her military strengths, and I don’t want to give away the farm before I’ve had a chance to not only show what those weaknesses are, but how they play out and what the consequences of those weaknesses are. It’s all about building and growing my character organically, and the last thing, I feel, any writer should do is give away the farm before they’ve had a chance to explain why and how it’s a weakness.

Sure, it would make for some really awesome word padding, but I also know that when I go back to edit this draft, I’m going to forget to edit it out. Even if I make note to cut everything, I’ll forget it, because I sometimes like to be lazy in my editing sometimes or I overlook things, or I forget entirely why I need to edit something out.

Yes, I believe in a balance of showing and telling. Some things only need to be told about because they are non-essential, but still a part of the story. They can be summarized, but the important bits, the parts that inform the reader on crucial details of the character and the plot – those need to be shown. Whether it be a flashback, an object – the things that are going to be held in the balance by the end of the novel need to be in play throughout the entire novel. There’s nothing more frustrating to a reader than making a  list of the character’s weaknesses in one scene or chapter, especially if their crucial to the plot. No one will care, at the end of the day, what the entirety of her orders entail. And they’ll have some idea of one thing it will include because I hinted at it when Viatrix went eavesdropping.

Readers want to see a character’s weaknesses and flaws played out in the story because that’s the kind of good stuff conflict can be made of. Does the character rise above their weaknesses, or do they fall farther from grace, or become undone because they are somehow incapable of surmounting their weaknesses? Readers are far more interested in these outcomes than being simply told a character has certain weaknesses.

How To Survive National Novel Writing Month

Someone posted a thread for Experienced Wrimo’s to impart their wisdom on my region’s board. I’m going to re-post it here, because a lot of what I said can also be said about the writing in general:

1) Write crap. Embrace the crap you write and love on it. Crap is good. Don’t just stare there at the page waiting for your muse to come to you. 90% of the time your muse won’t show up on command. Just write. You will write a lot of crap before you stumble across a few gems, but the crap is worth it. Sometimes you can even salvage it and it turns into something beautiful.

2)You will deal with writer’s block; don’t panic. Look for trends in what’s causing the block, because half the battle is knowing what you’re up against. For me, it’s that I get so focused on what I’m writing that my brain shuts down and refuses to think of the story. I walked away during Camp NaNo this year for 5 days straight. I have no regrets. You may have to walk away from your story for a few days, but it’s okay. It’ll be worth it in the end.

3) Don’t obsess over your word count. NaNo is a journey, a fun event, and if you’re fretting constantly over your word count, you won’t enjoy your experience. During Camp NaNo, while my older sister fretted over me being four days behind on my word count, I just shrugged and tried to get past my writer’s block. 50K is awesome to reach, but NaNo is so much more than just a word count. It’s a journey, and you don’t want to miss it.

4) Carry around a notebook or something portable so that when you get those bursts of inspiration, you have a place to jot all of your brilliant ideas down.

5) Back up everything, including your notes, often, across different mediums (dropbox, notebooks, etc.). I lost critical notes because I didn’t transfer information from a notebook  to my computer.

6) NaNo is doable on your own (based on doing two years of NaNo without showing up to a single write-in, except maybe the kick off party), but you are seriously missing out on epic moments if you don’t show up to the write-ins. Not only do you have guilt monkeys at your disposal, but you have people to voice your frustrations to – chances are someone else is frustrated as well and you can bond over your frustration and misery.

7) Don’t be afraid to write more than 1,667 words. There will be days you will not be able to write or you will deal with writer’s block. The extra words act as a nice buffer for those days.

8) Things might change as you work on your novel. Details, protagonists, the plot – writing is a nasty beast in that it sometimes changes mid-stream, but don’t be afraid to follow the new current. It may be the story you intended to tell.

9) Embrace the word padding powers of backstories. Backstories can be found in the oddest of places, including the dagger underneath the bed. Don’t be afraid to explore (but what do I know, I’m a Hufflepuff) your story, you will find things you may not have intended or planned on finding. 9 times out of 10, backstory is a powerful and effective way of advancing the plot, not to mention it’s great for character development.

10) This is a first draft. First drafts are idea dumps and are hardly masterpieces (unless you’re lucky or you’re a genius). Just pour all those beautiful words, details and ideas to the page, even if you end up cutting out some of those words, ideas or details later. Don’t let your inner editor get the better of you by questioning if something will fit into your story or not. That’s what editing is for.

11) There is no magical one size fits all approach to writing. Not everyone writes with a fancy writing computer program (some like Scrivener, some like WriteWay), pen and paper, or even a typewriter. Some write using the “Three Acts” method, others wait until editing to divide their manuscript into chapters and scenes. You have to decide what works for you and you only, because what works for me might not work for you.

Flashbacks in stories

It’s October  and the mood on my Facebook feed couldn’t be more distinct. Fall weddings, National Novel Writing Month is just a month away, that “three months away from the end of 2012” feeling, and the advent of fall and colder temperatures.

That’s not to mention the exciting personal bench marks that come with it, birthdays, more weddings, and the surreal idea that for the first time, since I left California, I managed to hold down a job longer than two weeks, albeit with its ups and downs, and occasional flashbacks to not-so-happy memories of my first job.  Which brings me precisely to the topic of today’s post: Flashbacks.

Sometimes it feels like flashbacks work far more seamlessly in reality than fiction. A supervisor says or does something a certain way that brings back an unpleasant memory of a previous job, or hearing someone describing falling in love with Doctor Who and suddenly all the  emotions and reactions that stirred in you when you fell in love with  the show well up. The stimulus and the response of flashing back in reality is more spontaneous and effortless than it seems to come in fiction.

Maybe some writers do find it easy to incorporate the two, but sometimes I feel like I really have to make my characters bleed before I finally get some back story out of them, or have flashbacks to their own pasts. Some might suggest that maybe I should pass over flashbacks if it’s an area of writing that I struggle with.

I feel that flashbacks are part of the human experience; that events, feelings, interactions strike significant chords of our life – things that have shaped our attitudes and beliefs, and we carry them through life, not always as baggage, and that they continue to shape  us through life.

The writer is on a fool’s errand if they think they can write a character without flashbacks, because unlike people, characters exist on the page, using the words we carefully select to bring them to life. With flashbacks, readers can become intimate with a character’s past and leave a book feeling like they’ve met a new friend. But it only works out well when the author has the skill to know when it add it and when the narrative is weaker or stronger because of its place in the story.

Writing Rituals and the Excuses We Make

I don’t know a single writer that doesn’t have some kind of writing ritual. Even I have one, at least when I’m doing my novel writing. I have to have a movie, or music, playing in the background. I can’t listen to funny music or watch comedies, I never get anything done when those are going on in the background.

I think they’re great to have, but I think writers should be careful not to create rituals that become a distraction to their productivity. For me, I know sometimes my ritual ends up becoming a distraction. My room gets messy to the point where I get stressed out and I can’t do anything productive. I’m far from a neat freak, but messy rooms stress me out. Clutter, when it gets out of hand, makes me feel worn out to the point where I don’t want to do anything because I spend more time looking for things than I do doing what I need to be doing.

I try to nip the messiness in the bud, before it has a chance to get out of hand as often as I can.

Unfortunately, my room (incidentally also the largest room in the house) was clearly not meant for two grown adults, and having to sacrifice space so that Lisa has a bed to sleep in when she comes home to visit, makes organization dicey at times. Our basement flooded two months ago, and we’re still moving stuff in and going through what’s left on the porch and garage, so putting anything in any of those places is a no go. I have a whole bunch of packed boxes from when I thought I’d be moving out to California laying around the room, most of which are currently stuffed in my closet for lack of a better place to put them.

The list goes on (it’s quite an impressive list) on why I’m not more neatly organized. I’m good at making excuses, and I’m sure we all have our excuses at one point or another on why we don’t do what we’re supposed to be doing or what we want to be doing.  Sometimes it’s the tension between not wanting to do a lot of work but not wanting to cut corners to accomplish everything we need to accomplish. Other times, it’s pure laziness.

Whatever the reason is, sometimes you have to cut through the excuses, see them as what they are. Excuses often masquerade as legitimate reasons, and some are, but excuses can just as easily be about making yourself feel better about your lack of productivity.

First Rule of Writing: Always Write

Back when this blog was on WordPress, and part of a graded assignment for my professional writing class, I blogged about my NaNo experience. One of my followers (we were grouped according to similar blog topics)couldn’t understand why I would waste my time on something that would (at best) end up in a grocery store (which was the worst, lowest, and most meaningless kind of art, in his opinion); why I would subject myself to a rigorous writing schedule of 1,667 words a day for a full month, when all he could manage most days was a blank screen. He fully admitted to being perfectionist, but I think being a perfectionist was the least of his issues. The smugness of the whole comment made me want to reach through my computer monitor and slap him.

Most people who are intimidated by the white page of creative death many times whine about how their muse has abandoned them, or how they don’t have any ideas of what to write. That is not writing. That is making excuses for not writing. Your profound, New York Times Bestseller that is going to change the world is not going to magically show up by you staring blankly at a screen. Many writers some how delude themselves into thinking that when the moment is “right”, when the idea finally “hits” them, or when God speaks down in a commanding, booming voice, they will write their story.

NEWS FLASH: God isn’t sitting by idly on a wispy cloud, taking his pretty time to tell you to write that world-changing novel, and if you’re waiting for the right moment or for inspiration to hit, you’ll be waiting forever. No offense, but if this is your idea of writing, you need to divorce it immediately. It’s a romantic idea, but one that rarely pans out in reality.

Just write.

Eventually, while wading through the enormous pile of crap and crappy ideas you’ll be writing, a gem will surface. You’ll be so in love with the idea or the story you won’t be willing to abandon it, regardless of how much crap will probably come out at first. However, in the interim, you will have to put out a lot of crap and go through a lot of crappy ideas before you find “the one” that you’ve been waiting for. You could say it’s a lot like finding the right significant other.

Always thinking of a career.

I feel like I’m coming to a crossroads where I’m uncertain if maybe I should try and find something in the customer service field, or if I should continue down my current path and continue to search for writing work.

I’m at a point where I’m going to force myself to make the rounds of the temp agencies again for office work again. Apparently I wasn’t very hire-able as a college student, and in hind-sight, I understand why. Things have changed since. I’m now strongly considering swallowing all of my disdain for the local temp agencies and try again, maybe at different agencies.

Now I’m working part-time, which means I’ll eventually have the means to improve my website package options and purchase a custom domain so that I don’t have .drupalgardens hanging out. A custom url looks a lot more professional than what I have right now.

The alternative is that I move my hosting elsewhere. I have a friend who works for Charter and has server space of his own that he’s not using. He offered it to me at one point, so I may eventually contact him about moving my professional site over there.

I also intend, at some point, to create buttons for my blog, rather than having them linked to in the main navigation of my portfolio site. There’s a lot of white space on the right hand side that is annoying the crap out of me. At that point, I will also include links to some of my Tumblr sites, rather than just linking to them with a little Tumblr logo or stuffing them away on my links page. Those links deserve to be seen. For now I’ll fill it with with my Twitter feed. I’m thinking tomorrow’s project is definitely going to be making blog buttons for my site.

Soon I have to decide if I’m going to keep this blog on Blogger or if I’m going to move it back to WordPress. Crossposting to Google+ has not given me the kind of traffic that I got on WordPress. Mostly, that was because on WordPress I had the ability to post to twitter, and that has been the large draw back to coming here. It’s started to become a frustration for me, and I’m beginning to think that if Blogger doesn’t intend to do this at any point in the near-ish future, I’m going back to WordPress. Or I may move back to Tumblr with the understanding that I may not get a lot of traffic from Tumblr users.

Right now I really have to focus on what I need to do now so that I can get the job that I want.  I can’t allow Speedway to be my career, I don’t want it to be my career.

Feedback on Fandom Blogs

I love running my fandom blogs. I rarely get any reader feedback, but when I do, I like to stop, read what they have to say, and try to write back to them. But sometimes I get feedback that starts out with a good thought “hey, you posted something that offended me,” or “hey I think this is a great idea” and then it immediately goes south because I imagine the person on the other end not knowing when to stop typing. I know this seems like a rude thing to say, but it gets bad sometimes.

Today it got particularly bad.

I had finally come to a breaking point about pro-lifers, because the ones I’m surrounded by tend to only care about life at conception. They stop caring after that, and I got to a point where my fingers started typing the words on the graphic and I didn’t stop typing them. Someone told me they were offended, even though the graphic wasn’t aimed at them specifically.

They didn’t stop at “I’m offended”.

They went into this long diatrab about how Hufflepuffs weren’t supposed to judge. Ever. This diatrab was ended with a conclusion that only Slytherins are supposed to be divisive. The ending annoyed me enough, and I disagreed with some of her conclusions enough, that I wrote back to apologize and explain where it came from. I explained, from my point of view, why I disagreed. I ended my disagreement by informing the reader that I didn’t appreciate the Slytherin hate in the end paragraph.

How do you deal with those moments where the feedback starts as being constructive and useful, but then it deteriorates into an off-topic rant that includes some divisive, and potentially offensive statements?

Story Ideas and Where to Find Them

Inspiration for story ideas is a difficult task for many writers. Very often, when beginning writers ask this question, they’re looking for a one size fits all solution. The onlooker is looking for some sort of magical key of understanding that demystifies the entire creative process. Well, the good news is that you can get ideas fro a wide variety of places. Much of the great literature studied in universities spans a wide variety of topics (for example, Mrs. Dalloway, a slice of life story). What you also find is that the story always some how traces back to the author, which is to say, your writing is not only uniquely yours, and it is, in some way or another, a part of your life story.

Don’t believe me? Last year Plato’s Republic served as the basis for my novel, and I’m continuing that story this year (after a much needed revelation about how to handle one of my characters). I studied antiquity in college as my minor, and Republic showed up in more than one course. While I may never accurately place or describe how it actually came to me to do this, other than one day I thought, “why not?” after my classical political thought class, anyone can look at my fascination with that period of history and point to it as a starting place.

Maybe you start with a man walking out of a house. My story telling professor had us write a story about a man who walked out of his house, and got into his car. What happened after that was completely up to us, the author of the tale. Or, have a character miss a train (intentionally or accidentally). Find a photo and write the story behind it. You never know when the mundane will lead to something extraordinary.

The possibilities are limitless when you stop looking for the extraordinary. Explore topics you’ve always wanted to explore. The only thing limiting your creative bounds is you. Go out on a limb and write about characters who don’t share your world view and see how they thrive, or fail to thrive. Explore a familiar topic from different angles. Dip your toe in a genre you don’t normally write in – a lot of times creativity thrives on putting ourselves in unfamiliar waters. Often  I’ve discovered that my writing is much stronger or my plotting is much better in a particular genre.