Novel Writing

The Ordinary Day

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How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.   Annie Dillard

So, I'm working on the rewrite of my novel.  And one of the things I am attempting to do is deepen the secondary characters.  To do this, of course, I must first deepen my understanding of them.

Easy, right?

Well, no.  Because if I had a deeper understanding of the characters, I would have put it in the novel in the first place.  Duh.  So it is back to the drawing board, or journal, as the case may be. And I've returned to an old exercise I learned years ago, I think in a screen writing class I took as a lark. 

The Ordinary Day.

You're might be familiar with this one.  What you do is take your character through and ordinary day, from the moment he or she wakes in the morning until he or she goes to bed at night.  Every blessed moment of it.  Write it all down, every bit of it.

I am finding this to be the most useful window into a character's psyche imaginable.  Because, when you relax and really let yourself go with it, your character will begin talking to you.  And she will tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, and explain many things from her past that you probably didn't know.

This is because Annie Dillard is right–how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.  How your character spends his day is how he spends his life and by really understanding that, you can understand him.  Plus, as your character goes through her day, her mind is busily engaged.  And the mental dross of an average day is gold, absolute gold.

For instance.  You start your character out by having her wake up in her bed.  What does her bedroom look like? Perhaps it is done up in whites and neutral colors like the photo above.  The first thing your character, call her Susie, sees upon waking up is this peaceful room.  Which she hates.  It's her husband, Ralph, who wanted this kind of design, because it feed his spiritual soul.  Spiritual, smeeritual.  Susie thinks that is all a bunch of crap.  She's not interested in spirituality, she's interested in success, and right now success would mean getting herself out of bed and out of this boring, drab bedroom and into her running clothes so she can get her three miles in before breakfast.  And hopefully she can run off some of her anger at Ralph, who seems to be getting as boring and drab as the bedroom he chose.

And so on.  Just the simple act of locating your character in her bedroom as she begins her day has already netted you a wealth of information about her: she is impatient, lively, likes things colorful and bold, far more interested in success than spirituality, energetic, and probably a classic type-A personality.  Plus her marriage is in danger and she's got quite the judgmental streak.  Not bad for a few minutes in the life of your character!

As you take your character on through the day you'll learn more and more about him.  Not only that, with luck, with any luck at all, your character will begin talking to you.  In his voice.  In his one and only truly unique voice.  And soon you will know him every bit as well as you know your best friend, or your child, or your spouse.

By the way, the Ordinary Day is a cool exercise to do for yourself when you want to change your life.  What you do is write out your dream Ordinary Day.  If you could do anything, without regard to the usual limitations of time, money, fear, etc., what would you do?  Where would you live?  Who would you be with?  Write it out, starting from the second you wake up.  This can become a powerful road map to where you want to go.  And the really great thing is that by writing it as a day in the life, it seems doable. 

How do you get to know your characters?  Have you ever successfully used the Ordinary Day exercise for a character or for yourself?

Organizing for Success

Please excuse the grandiose title.  I couldn't organize my way out of a paper bag.  My brain just doesn't think that way, does yours?  Because it is my experience that most of us creative types tend to be more towards the wafty, creative, big picture side than the down-to-earth groundedness I associate with being organized.
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However.

Last Thursday my desk was covered in papers.  The floor of my office was littered with piles of journals and legal pads, each of which had some ongoing project in it.  I was halfway in the middle of a lot of personal projects and I had a number of things going for clients and students as well.

And then I got an email.

From an agent. 

The one reading my novel.

She likes it.  Sort of.  She thinks I'm a fabulous writer and that the novel is very well done, though she has reservations about the relatablity (her word) of Emma Jean, the main character, and she thinks some of the minor characters are not well drawn. 

But she would be delighted to read it again if I revise.

And so revising I am. 

But first I had to clear a space in my brain for the revision.  And to do that, I had to get my office cleaned up.  And so, on Saturday afternoon, despite the fact that it was the first gorgeous day we've had here in Portland in ages, I worked for several hours on organizing for success.  I straightened and filed and consolidated.  And I printed out the most recent version of Emma Jean and put it into a binder.

And yesterday morning I started working on it again.

It is weird to be going back to a novel I thought I was done with.  And yet, it feels right, too.  The way the agent described her vision for Emma Jean made me hope I can rewrite her to that idea, because if I can, I truly will have written a kick-ass novel.

So, until further notice, Captain will be writing my blog posts.  He's taken up residence in the new office chair I just got on clearance at Fred Meyer for $60, and will be writing posts of great fascination to cat lovers.  No, actually, I'm kidding, in case you hadn't guessed.  I'm not taking a blogging vacation, but I am going to lighten up on my posting schedule a bit.  Instead of posting every week day, I'll be posting Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next few weeks.  I anticipate being back to the full schedule soon.

What about you?  Where are you with your various projects?  And how do you organize for them?

A Place You Go

800px-Laguna_Beach Yesterday I wrote a blog post called Have a Place to Go in Your Writing.  It was about how important it is to know where you are going when you begin a writing session.  You can go back and read it here, but you don't really have to in order to understand this post.

This whole thing about place grew out of a journal entry from a few weeks ago.  I started out by writing on the topic of yesterday's post–having a place to go in my work and what a difference that made.  And then the journal entry morphed into how important the concept of place itself is in my writing.  The fact that place is front and center in my work is not news to me.  I wrote my critical thesis for my MFA on the role of landscape as character in the works of Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor.  (And for the record, I'm a huge, raving Cather fan.  O'Connor***, not so much.)

There's a scene in my recently completed novel where the heroine, Emma Jean, who is a bestselling novelist, dramatically announces to her husband, "I cannot live someplace that does not inspire me."  While this is true for me, what is even more true is that I can't write about a place that doesn't inspire me.  And, bear in mind, I use the term "inspire" loosely.  I love writing about LA, though I have no desire to live there.  But something about the place inspires me as a location.  Conversely, though Nashville is one of my absolute favorite places on the planet, I've not yet been able to write about it.  I've set fiction in Portland (where I live), in Santa Fe, and in Sun Valley, Idaho.  I love the Oregon Coast, but have never been able to use it as a setting.  Weird, huh?

 And furthermore, getting the location set is as important to me as coming up with a character to write about.  To me, a character is so intricately linked to place that if I change the place she lives, that can jinx the whole book.  And, if I don't have a place firmly in mind when I think up a character, there's a good chance the story won't go anywhere.

Perhaps this odd thing about place that I have is about wanting to explore the parameters of a location.  It may not be that I have to love the place to write about it, but just that I want to know more about it.  LA, for instance, despite the many times I've been there, is a vast mystery to me.  I still marvel at the sunshine, the palm trees, the freeways, the cars.  I am still amazed that people actually live there.  Manhattan is the same.  A couple years ago, attending a conference there, I rode in the back of a taxi from the airport, staring at people walking down the busy sidewalks, flabbergasted that so many people lived in this place where you can't see the sky.  Try as I might, I could not figure out what it would be like to live there.

And maybe that is what it is all about–trying to figure out what its like to live someplace else.  Because, really, isn't fiction all about trying to figure out the someplace else and the someone else?

Thoughts?  What role does place play in your work?  Is it important or something you don't really think about?  How do you choose a setting for your writing?

**The photo is of Laguna Beach, where my dear friend Julie Brickman lives.  I've had the picture on my computer for awhile, but I think it originally came from Wikipedia.

***Now that I've dissed Flannery O'Connor, let me point out that today is her birthday.  She was born on March 25, 1925.  I just learned this while finding the link for her.

Burning Questions, What Are Yours?

Years ago, in a critique group I was a part of, we used to talk about Burning Questions.Neon-burbank-tolucalake-817102-l

It began when I was working on a novel and got stuck halfway through.   I didn't know where I was going and couldn't see my way to the end, so I sat down and wrote a series of questions that I thought readers would be asking by that point in the novel.  Hence, Burning Questions.

The novel never did get finished.  It was no doubt doomed from the start because I plunged into it without a clear idea of where I wanted to go, or what, precisely, I wanted to say.  There's a big debate among novel writers as to whether one should outline or not outline.  People on each side of this debate hold their opinions as strongly as Birthers and Bush Bashers.  Wait, we no longer have Bush Bashers, do we.  Okay, call them liberals then.  You know what I mean.

I am a firm believer in doing whatever works.  If writing outlines works for you, then do it and don't worry about what those other folks say.  But if you like to be all loosey-goosey and let the writing and characters take you wherever they want, go for it. 

For me, what works in writing novels (and short fiction, come to think of it) is some kind of loose outline.  And when I say loose, I mean loose.  It is really more like a vague list that gives me at least some idea of what's ahead.  Along the way, things change, characters come alive, new ones walk on, which is all part of the fun.  And I revise my list when it is apparent that things aren't going to go the way I think they are.  But then I write a new list.  This keeps me on track. 

Then there are blog posts, which have always been more free-flowing for me.  Usually, I'm pretty good at keeping myself on track, but sometimes I start off in one place and end up in another, quite unexpectedly.  This post is an example–I started off wanting to ask what your burning questions are, and then got sidetracked by talking about where the term came from….and that led into a discussion of outlining vs. not.

Ah well, it is Monday and I slept late.

But here's the original Burning Question part.  I am wondering what yours are.  Truly and all.  Do you have questions, concerns, or ideas about writing?  About the writing life?  About a writing career?  Or maybe you have some questions about creativity?  Motivation? Inspiration?  Getting your butt to the computer regularly?

Whatever your questions are, I want to know them.  I'll do my best to answer them in posts, or even an email if that seems more appropriate.

So bring 'em on, lay them on me…anything, anything at all.    Comment away!

Photo by xurble, found on Everystockphoto, my fave, and used under Creative Commons 2.5 license.