Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In the Corner

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” – Unknown

The other night I had trouble sleeping. I’m not sure why, but it’s not the first night I’ve spent tossing and turning. It’s also not the first night I didn’t do anything about it. I just lay there hoping to eventually fall asleep. Like most of those nights, sleep took a long time coming. However, this particular night, because I had been thinking about what to blog about and afraid that I would forget in the morning, I finally got up and wrote the idea down. Surprisingly or not surprisingly, I fell asleep when I went back to bed. I just needed to do something different. Coincidentally my blog reflects what I had been going through that night while trying to fall asleep – if something doesn’t work, I need to try something different.

How many times in our writing do we follow the same pattern of writing ourselves into a corner? How many times do we try to get out of that corner by backing up but then find ourselves in the corner again because we didn’t change our plan? We need to back away and keep backing away until we can look more closely at why we continue to end up where we didn’t want to go with our stories.

Is it because we haven’t gotten to know our characters well enough? Maybe we don’t really know how they will react in the situations we place them in because we don’t know or understand what brought them to the point where they enter our story. Again most writers know a lot of what happened in a character’s past won’t necessarily make it on to the written page, but we need to spend the time educating ourselves about our characters. We can do this in several ways:

An interview with a character quite often reveals something about him we didn’t know before. I’ve learned some very interesting things about some of my characters that I would never have known if I hadn’t conducted the interview. The characters almost leapt off the page with this method. When this happens they come alive and we can finally understand why we couldn’t make the characters do what we thought they should do in our stories.

Another way to get to know our characters is to create a profile where we list their likes, dislikes, physical appearances, age, number of siblings, marriages, divorces, children, and anything else that will help us understand our character. Even a shoe size may be important because the heroine is self-conscious about her size 9 feet on her 5’3” frame. Keep this information in a file that is easily accessible.

Another interesting way to learn about your character is to create a collage – choose pictures and words that reflect your characters and their conflicts. Keep it close for when you run into problems with your characters.

When characters misbehave, we have to re-evaluate a few things. Have we chosen the correct heroine for the story? Perhaps she should be in a different story. Or maybe we should change the conflict we’ve created for her in the story. Perhaps we have the wrong heroine for the right hero or vice versa.

If it’s the plot that doesn’t work, we need to go back and rethink why it doesn’t work. Is it because we haven’t planned it fully? Maybe the conflict is not strong enough to carry the story to novel length. Or maybe it’s too complex and we need to change the focus and word count to adequately (no – magnificently) tell the story that needs to be told.

When we write romance, are the conflicts of the hero and heroine at odds with each other? If they’re not related in some way, what will keep the two characters apart for most of the book despite their attraction to each other?

Now I’ve written this from the pov of a plotter rather than a pantser. For those writers who plot, how do you get yourself out of the corner you’ve written yourself into? If you’re a pantser, what do you do?


Karen said...

Hey Suse,
For me, the excitment comes from just going with it. I understand the perils of pantsing and can see the wisdom in plotting but its so much fun to be a pantser.

I like the collage idea. I always print out pictures of the heroine and hero. I do well with visuals.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
Been there, done that. I think the worst case of writing myself into a corner that I've had was with a mss I called "Victoria's Secret". It was about a pastor who falls for woman who had once been a prostitute. Well, I got about half way through the story (the sagging middle really sagged) and I got stuck. I had no idea where to go with this story. At the time, rather than try to change my approach and try something different, I abandonned the project. I have several orphaned and abandonned projects like that lying around.

Knowing what I know now, I might have tried doing what you suggested, working on character sketches, interviewing my characters. My plot needed work so maybe I should have done more work on that, perhaps going back into the Dreamer phase, as I said yesterday, to come up with some better plot ideas.

I gave pantsing a try because so many writers have had success with it. Unfortunately, I discovered I'm not a pantsing kind of writer. I spent a lot of time staring at the blinking curser, having no idea where to go. I do better with some kind of road map.


Janet C. said...

I detect a theme for this week's blog post :)

Great post, Suse. I'm a pantser - and I can fly with word count. Until, like I said yesterday, my MS comes to a screeching halt and I face a very dark corner. I have one MS that I know I need to finish (those characters just won't shut up). But I wrote myself right into a corner. I backed out and tried another route, and just like those maze puzzles, I ended up in the exact same corner. So, like your post suggests, I've been doing some extensive thinking, plotting, and this time (I hope) I'll take the right turn and get to the end.

Of course, I may need to have a brainstorming meeting with my peeps (heads up, peeps).

Will I change my pantsing ways? Probably not, but maybe I need to integrate some plotting strategies before I write myself into some more dark corners.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Good post, Suse.

I'm actually in a corner right now with my inspy suspense. The word meter on my blog hasn't moved since BIAW ended because I'm not sure which way I want the story to go. Because she's from the city and he's from the country, I've already used both backgrounds. Now I need to pick one location for the next few chapters and I have so many ideas but nowhere that really packs a punch enough to stand out. And, until I pick the location, my story isn't going anywhere.

Suse said...

Hi Karen, it's a scary prospect to me to be a pantser. I'm glad you're having fun with it though.

Visuals are a great reference for when you need to remember what your character looks like or what color his eyes are. For some reason, I can never remember those details.

I read something else today to help people to get to know their characters - type out their top 10 song list they would have on their ipod or mp3 player.

Suse said...

Hey Jana, I'm with you there. I need to know where I'm going or I'll never know when I've actually gotten there.

I remember your "Victoria's Secret" story. It definitely had a good conflict. I've abandoned lots of projects when I can't figure out how to get out of the corner I've written myself into. Sometimes it has been because of the plot, but other times I've just got the wrong character in the story so it doesn't work. And rather then find the right character I just abandon the story. I keep learning though, so there may come a time when I go back to some of those stories and use what I've learnt.

Suse said...

Hi Janet, as long as you don't end up in any dark SCARY corners you're probably okay. The idea of pantsing is foreign to me. I'm the kind of person that when I go on a trip, I need to know there's a hotel room waiting for me when I get there.

However, even with planning, I do end up in corners, and it's usually because I haven't thought my scene, etc. through enough to know why I'm writing it.

It's disappointing to get yourself out of a corner and then end back there again. If I were teaching myself, I would say what I say to my students, "Just walk away from it and look at it another day." Or maybe with some of my manuscripts that might be "look at it after a couple of years."

Suse said...

Hey Anita, sorry to hear that you've gotten stuck. Is there one location that might cause more conflict than another for one or both of your characters? Does one character have more to lose than the other at this point? What are some of the later scenes in your book? Will they be affected by which location you choose?

I hope you get out of your corner soon, Anita, and your story moves forward.

At least you can admit you've written yourself into a corner. There have been times when I've been in denial and I keep writing, but the story doesn't progress.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Suse,

I've been fighting with a few scenes lately, sort of a slow back and forth of starting and restarting, and a lot of it has been due to character. I don't really get time to build writing momentum, since I'm snatching it between assignments, so when I come back to my wip, I've often had enough time to spot issues.

For me it's had a lot to do with several plotlines coming together, and I hadn't taken the time to really understand what was going on for everyone (I prefer to pants, but I think I'm more of a plotter than I realize). I'd get writing, and then it'd feel flat and off, and I'd think "what about so-and-so?" Finally I made some small adjustments and things are moving forward swimmingly. It's always some little speed-bump ruining the pace :)

I like your suggestion of interviewing characters, and it's one I've heard frequently. I don't know if I'd come up with the right questions to ask, though. Any suggestions?

Janet C. said...

Hey, Hayley (Sorry, Suse, jumping in here). For interviewing your characters - a really interesting idea that I've seen done on RWA Online - have members of your critigue group or writers group (perhaps a great idea for one of our meetings) ask the questions. You can do it as an e-mail and then answer the questions as your character (and send the e-mail back to your group because those answers could generate other questions). I would love to try this - so if you're looking for someone to try it out with, let me know.

Again, sorry Suse for answering Hayley's question.


Suse said...

Hi Janet, I don't mind you answering Hayley's question. You've mentioned a way to get more information about your character that I hadn't heard of. It's all about learning from each other.

Hey Hayley, I used to have a set list of questions to ask my characters, but alas, it is on a floppy disk somewhere. Instead, I looked through the questions I've asked some of the people I've interviewed. Of course, you would add or delete according to who your characters are and what they do. And while you're interviewing, be aware of other questions that might pop into your head from something they've just said. Anyway, if you're interested in doing a one on one interview, these are just some of the questions I might ask:

Tell me about (character name).

How would you describe yourself? How would others describe you?

Where were you born?

Have you been married? Do you also have children?

Are your family & friends supportive of you?

What is your post-secondary education and training, if any? Did you earn a degree, diploma or certificate? What was your major?

What do you consider to be the pivotal point that launched your career?

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career to this point?

Do you enjoy your career?

What is your favourite song (book)? What was your favourite song (book) growing up? Why?

If you could change your life in any way, would you? Why or why not?

If you would change something, what would it be?

Is there anything else you would like to mention? Something you feel is important or just an as interesting fact about you?

Of course, there could be many other questions that I haven't listed, but as I said earlier, it is important to listen to what your character says and ask questions from those answers as well.

Good luck and fun!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Suse, thanks! I can definitely see a lot of attitude coming across from those, even though they're pretty simple. I can't help but pictureit like a tv interview, and my heroine very often just staring at the camera not wanting to talk :p

Janet, that sounds like a lot of fun, doing it with the group. I think that's a great subject to bring up next meeting, considering how many of us replied to the Christmas letter that circulated. We'd probably have to keep things pretty broad to accommodate so many different periods and settings, but lots of fun!

I also read a while ago about doing character interviews on your blog as a means of introducing people to the character/novel, so I'll definitely be playing around with this.

Suse said...

Hi Hayley, I like the idea of posting the character interview on a blog. That would be a great way to drum up interest in your novel.

raballard said...

I read your comments on Mary Lindsey's blog today.

Thank you, you echo my emotions to the "T". I am glad it was said.

I wish I could add that to my blog, but I try to maintain some semblence of humor in my blog.

Again thanks so much.