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Tips On Writing: Prepping for the Novel, Part Three–Character

 

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Your novel is on one of these shelves!

First off, I know, I know.  I like me some convoluted headlines, don't I?  You'd think a writer would be good at firing off snappy subject lines, but alas, such is not the case with this writer. I think it's the novelist in me who loves to write long headlines.  Apologies.

 

You've landed on the third part of my series on what you need to do before you write a novel.  You can read the introduction, with a bit about tools, on this post, and part two, about the idea and the process, on Wednesday's post.

Today's post is about character.  It is one of my favorite topics when it comes to novel writing, because I'm one of those writers who believe that all story comes from character.  Years ago my dearly departed mother told me to always make sure there were people in my snapshots, because photographs without people in them are boring.  And you know what?  Unless you're looking at a shot by Ansel Adams or someone of his ilk, she's right.

Novels are about characters in action.  They are about characters in opposition.  Novels are about characters in conflict.  And so on.  Given that novels are about character, it stands to reason that when setting out to write a novel, you should know a lot about your character.  So, here goes.

Wants/Needs/Fears

A good place to start is by figuring out what your character wants.  The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, "always have your character want something, even if its just a glass of water."  Desire drives the world.  It will drive your character, too.  (My husband tells the story of the time we were in Paris and I found a jacket I wanted to buy.  Suddenly, my French got really good as I found words to ask for the location of the check-out stand.  My desire for the jacket overcame my fear of speaking the language.)

If you can't figure out what your character wants, maybe it is a need or fear that drives her.  If you can't figure those out, proceed with the rest of the character exercises and then start writing.  It will come to you.

Get a Visual

It can be incredibly helpful to have an image of your character in mind.  Often people begin with a photo of an actress or public figure.  This can be a great starting point, as it can help to write a description to have something to work off.  Do a search on Google Image for multiple views to put on your vision board.  Or use models from catalogs, which also afford you many photos.  Or sketch your character. 

Do a Dossier

You really need to know the nuts and bolts of your character and a bit about her background.  Consider writing the following:

Name, nickname

Age, birthdate and place

Height, weight, build, description of appearance

Marriage and family history (siblings? parents alive?)

Physical scars

Emotional scars

Educational background

Traits

Likes/dislikes

Religion

There's more you can do here, too–this is just a starting point.  As you write this, allow questions about your character to form and jot them down.  Then answer them.

Ordinary Day

What is your character's ordinary day like?  Write it out, from the time she gets up in the morning until the time she goes to sleep at night.  Where does she go?  What does she do?  Who does she see?  I learned this from a screenwriter (whose name I've forgotten) years ago.  It is amazing how useful this little writing exercise is; try it.  You'll learn a lot about your character.

These exercises ought to give you enough material to get going.  In truth, often a character pops into my head and I write a scene or two with her to see if she's got legs.  (Metaphorically, people, metaphorically.)  Once I ascertain that she does, then I return to these writing exercises to learn more about her.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Find images to represent your character and add them to your vision board.  Then fill out a character dossier and write her ordinary day. 

Please comment.  I'd love to hear how you get to know the characters in your novels and stories.  Do you write up character dossiers?  Take them out on a date?  Interview them?  Do tell.

 PS.  Typepad's spellcheck has been wonky lately.  Forgive errors.  I've gone back over it a couple times, but something may have eluded my eagle eyes.

Photo by Alvimann. 

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Tips on Writing: Prepping For the Novel, Part One–Tools

So, I've written three novels now.  The first was a crappy mystery that never went anywhere (though

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recently when I found a copy of it, I realized it was better than I remembered.) The second was my MFA novel and its not half bad, it's just got a plot that doesn't quite work.  I promised my daughter and daughter-in-law that I'd publish copies for them, so stay tuned, it may just appear here soon.  And the third novel is the first one I've finished that not only hangs together, I think its pretty damn good.  It is currently making the rounds in New York.

In all that novel writing, I've learned a thing or two.  And that is this: a bit of prepping goes a long way.  So that's what this post is about.  But first, a thing or two about the novel I'm currently writing.  I've been in a bit of a dry spell when it comes to fiction.  I kept coming up with ideas and working on them for a few chapters and then realizing they weren't going to pan out, for whatever reason.  Finally, this new novel, which I'm temporarily calling Jemima B, popped into my head (actually, when I was doing some free writing, proof that it works).

Good Enough?

But, here's the deal–with all my wandering through novels that didn't work, I had lost my ability to discern.  And I wasn't sure if this new novel was "good" enough to keep going with.  So I just wrote, didn't do any prepping or anything.  Finally, last week I mustered up my courage and took the three chapters into my writing group.  And, while I got specific comments about things that need to change, I also got that people liked it a lot.  So now, finally, I feel well and truly started on a project.  And I can go back and do the prep work for it. 

The Commitment

This is a statement of sorts.  It is saying, yes I commit to this novel.  Yes, I'm going to do what it takes to carry through to the end.  Yes, I'm ready to do it.

Are you?  This post is the first in a series.  I'm also thinking about putting this together as either a program or a one-on-one coaching product.  (If you're interested, email me and I'll put you on a list for the announcement.)  But you can easily follow along with the action ideas listed at the end of each post and get yourself ready to write a novel.  So, today, let's start with tools.

Tools

Here's what I consider essential, beyond a computer and pens:

1. A small spiral notebook, in which to collect all your notes.  Even if you originally note them on a scrap of paper, try to transfer them to this journal so they will all stay together. 

2.  A bigger spiral notebook, like 8 1/2 by 11 size, in which to do free writes, which are a great way to learn more about your characters and story.

3.  A binder in which to keep research and images related to the story.  This may also hold a completed draft if you so desire.

4.  A vision board.  You can make this so that it hangs on the wall near your desk, or you can put it into your binder.  But either way, do work with images for your book, it is amazing how helpful it is.  (You can download my free Ebook on how to create a vision board for your book by signing up to the right.)

5.  A stack of 3 by 5 cards.  These come in handy for all kinds of things, like to note scenes or character traits on, to name two.

Okay, that's it for now.  We're starting slow and easy.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Gather your tools.  Make it fun.  Go to the office supply store and prowl the alley.  Buy spirals and binders that you love, or take them home and decorate them. 

And, please comment: what do you consider the essential tools for writing a novel (or a book)?

Photograph by Hey Paul.

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