29 January 2011

More about Characters

In books and articles about writing a lot is often made of whether someone is a planner, or just gets stuck into the writing without knowing the characters or plot, or where they are going to end up.  I tend to think of it as being somewhere on a continuum between the two, rather than one or the other.
To a certain extent I am a planner.  I have an initial idea of a situation, soon after that the main characters appear, and I leave it in the back of my mind bubbling away, visiting every now and again to see what else has happened until it gets to a point where I need to start recording it.
I make notes about the initial conflict, the main turning points, some scene planning, and do a little work on the character spreadsheet.
I said I am a planner to a certain extent.  That extent tends to be about half of the novel and then I get stuck.  I wallow around for a few days wondering what else is going to happen and then decide to start writing.  In the process of writing I get to know the characters much better and they move the story, not me.
So when I first start writing, my character spreadsheet is only thinly populated, the rest comes as I get to know the characters.  When I discover new information about a character, I add it to the spreadsheet at the end of that writing session.  The same with new characters. 
This means that later if there is something I can’t remember, or want to check, I don’t have to search through pages of manuscript, but can find it easily in the spreadsheet.  This is especially useful when a timeline is important to the plot.  How old was X when this happened?  When did A & B first meet?
As you can guess from the comments above my character sheets inevitably get a lot of other information added to them during writing, but it does mean there is one place to go to find this information later.

25 January 2011

Character Development

Before I diverted myself with motivation and progress I was talking about characters.  For some people a character may appear fully formed, but for me it is an initial introduction and a getting to know you phase.  I keep a spreadsheet for all my characters, and start this when I'm planning although most of the information is added while I’m writing, as this is when I really get to know the character.
After talking with other writers about character development, I know that like all aspects of writing there are as many ways of developing character as there are writers.  I’m not particularly visual and have never felt the need to find a picture in a magazine that looks like my character, but if it works for you then do that.
My spreadsheet is a blank template in which I have a series of questions and pointers to character development.  The first few rows are the usual: name, reason for or meaning of name, nickname and reason for it, date of birth, parents, siblings, position in family (oldest, youngest etc.), and physical appearance including hair and eye colour, glasses worn or contacts, height etc.
I must add two things here.  One is that not all the rows are ever completed, some just aren’t necessary for a particular character.  Two: the information in this spreadsheet is often like backstory, stuff the writer needs to know but which doesn’t necessarily appear in the novel.
I always have a picture in my head of what the character looks like and although this description usually appears in the first draft, I remove as much extraneous information as possible in subsequent drafts and leave the physical description up to the reader.  I’ve noticed a move in books I’ve read recently to less physical description of characters other than where it has a bearing on their character.  Though this may well vary depending on genre. 

To give an example, I wouldn't care much about a character's hair colour unless it's mentioned because she dyes her hair as she is so unhappy with her life, and thinks things are going to improve just by being blonde/brunette etc.  When I’m reading a book I always end up with a mental image of the character, and this is very often in contrast to any description the author puts in.
Subsequent rows in my spreadsheet cover things such as:
Their job, what it is and how important it is to them.
Favourite films/music/books/food/clothes/jewellery.
Habits – do they smoke/drink/keep fit/have hobbies.
Habitual actions/habits/speech patterns.
Background – including any childhood events that still affect them, their first memory.
Relationship with parents, siblings, friends.
Attitude: What drives them, when are they most/least at ease, how they feel about themselves, a past failure they would be embarrassed for people to know.
Personality strengths, weakness, soft spot, who were they most influenced by.
How they react in a crisis – very important to know for your protagonist.
For more minor characters you wouldn’t need to know a lot of this information, but for your protagonist spending time getting to know them will pay off in a character the reader feels they know like a friend, rather than a cardboard cut out.

22 January 2011

Measuring Progress

I measure my first draft progess with a daily word count.  I keep an Excel spreadsheet and happily (or not so happily depending on the output) add in the daily total.
Like a lot of authors I tend to overwrite initially, putting in all that excess description, adverbs and adjectives, and so subsequent drafts tend to have a downward trend in the word count.  Although I know this, it doesn’t help in the motivation stakes, and makes it hard finding a measure of progress when your word count is less than the previous day.
Last year in the 2nd semester of the Advanced Writing Course I did, we had different writers join us each week as guest tutors.  I asked several of them about their thoughts on word count and progress, and if they had some magic recipe for another measure.  Most agreed word count was good for a first draft, but after that it was more important to polish and improve the writing/plot/dialogue etc and not get so hung up on the word count.
Hence my reason for setting a goal of hours and days each week for my work in progress, and to have it ready to send out by the beginning of March.  For so far it’s going well.  A work deadline sidelined me for a few days, and some days have been less than my target, but others have been more. 

17 January 2011


Two weeks into 2011 and already Christmas feels like a distant memory.  Finding something to motivate you to write, or accomplish anything, is important, and what motivates one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. 
Putting my goals on this blog has certainly been a motivation for me.  Though I guess it is more of a stick than a carrot.
Before writing this entry I checked to see if I had any new mail - obviously dealing with procrastination is still a work in progress - and, to my great surprise, there was an email telling me I was through the initial phase of a competition I entered a while ago.  Great motivation.
But when I looked at my entries I could immediately see things I would change.  Does this only happen to me?  Does there ever come a time when you are totally happy with something you’ve written?

14 January 2011

Friends and Characters

This morning I had, not so much a blinding flash of inspiration, as more a dawning realisation.  I have some darlings I need to murder.  Nothing less than the final scenes of my current work in progress. 
From the early days of my first draft I had that final scene in my head.  I actually wrote it when I was about halfway through the first draft.  I was pleased with it, and it gave me the motivation that I could finish the novel.  It also fits with an early scene, giving that link back to the beginning that many authors talk about.
At the moment I’m working on making London more of a character, and doing that through Kate, one of my POV characters.  I chose Kate as she is new to London, exploring the city, and sees it differently than those who live there.
People are interesting.  You meet them at work, at a party, through a friend, bump into them (literally) in the street.  You smile, talk, share information, and whether you realise it or not, you begin to categorise them from things they say, the way they dress, where they work.
Characters arrive – before, after or with a conflict situation.  They make their introductions and you make your assumptions.  Later they’ll say or do something that stops you short.  You didn’t expect that.  They’re an alcoholic, workaholic, racist, have kids, six ex-husbands, a current husband and six lovers.  Whatever it is you have to do a rapid re-evaluation of your impression of this person.
As writers and readers we all know that characters need to change through the conflict.  Kate changes, but I realised that to show her character arc more clearly I had to get rid of some assumptions made during our getting to know each other phase. 
This morning I realised what had been niggling me for a while.  Kate doesn’t actually do what I thought she would at the end.
She surprised me as friends sometimes do.

11 January 2011

What Happens Next?

They won’t stay there.  You keep pushing them back, but just when you think you’ve managed to restrain them (yet again) out they pop.  Your protagonist, maybe an antagonist has also joined in, even a whole cast of ensemble characters.
What happens next?
Two words happen next.  What if?
I find now that ideas, situations, plot progression, or whatever you want to call it, come more easily, but back five or six years when I was first struggling with the idea for Driftwood I was stuck.  Stuck pretty much where I left the last posting.  I had a few ideas, but not enough for a novel.  Then in a writing book or article I read about ‘what if’.
What if your character did x, y or z?  What if this, or that, happened?
To use Driftwood as an example.  I started with the idea of a teenage couple in love.  Being so young ‘what if’ outside circumstances pulled them apart.  Parents?  Another lover?  ‘What if’ they met again 20 years later?  ‘What if’ one or both of them had children?  Other partners.  No partner.  What if one of them wanted to forget the past and get back together?  Or had ulterior motives for suggesting that.
When you feel you are moving forward with ideas, expand the 'what if' theory and ask different questions.
How would things have changed for each of them?  Are there things from their past they have kept hidden?  How do these secrets impact on their present life?
At this point (for me anyway) all of this is still in my head, it still feels too fluid to commit to paper, though there’s nothing wrong with making notes if you feel you might forget some of it.  As I said before the best part about writing advice and processes is to sift through, try out things, keep what is useful and forget the rest.

07 January 2011

Characters and Situations

Before writing my first novel I read several books, and heaps of articles on the actual process.  For anyone who has done this you will know there are probably as many ideas out there as there are novelists.  The best advice is to try different ways and find out what works best for you.
Most of the time I don’t think too much about my process, but earlier in the week someone asked me about it, and whether I start with a situation or a character.
To be honest I wasn’t sure.  They both appear quite close together and I thought (for me) they were possibly interchangeable, but having spent more time thinking about it I realised that wasn’t so.
With my first novel Driftwood, it was the context of two people meeting after 20 years that first came to mind.  The character of Juliet appeared soon afterwards followed by Luke, and from there how they had changed, the reasons for them parting originally, and how that impacted on them in the present.
My current work in progress (at editing stage) started with the idea of how differently people would deal with the after effects of a traumatic event in their lives.
I have a first draft of another novel about three-quarters finished, and that again started with a situation.
With each one the protagonist appeared shortly after the initial idea, but interestingly it seems to be the situation that comes first for me.
Once I have a situation and a protagonist I let them settle in the back of my mind, and develop on their own for quite a while before I put anything down on paper.

03 January 2011

Happy New Year

Here’s to a great new year for everyone: writer, reader, blog surfer.  I know it’s the third day of the New Year, but it’s the first Monday and so I’m keeping my goal to post at least twice a week (Monday and Friday).
I was reading Nicola Morgan’s post for New Year’s day – a very good one on strategies rather than goals, as in means to an end, rather than the end.  Jeannie in the previous post commented on my focus, someone else recently said driven, we’ll have to see about that in a month or so!
For the first part of my life I lived in various countries in the northern hemisphere, some hotter than others, but all obviously in winter at this time of the year.  I love celebrating Christmas and New Year during summer, and every year listening to Christmas carols while wandering around shops in summer clothes seems more familiar. 
My current work in progress is set in London, in early spring, and as I sit here in hot temperatures, having just spent a couple of hours at the beach I need all that focus.  At present I am working on making more of London in the manuscript, almost as another character.  I’m using notes I made on my last visit, and as I read my descriptions of places, individuals and incidents I can see many of them as if I were looking at a photo.  Thank goodness for the writer’s notebook!