inasmuch as it concerns Building Character:
Protagonists. Antagonists. Second-string chorus members. Meeting them, getting to know them, telling them what I want them to do, and finding out they don't want to do it, the bastards.
Congratulations! You Win A Day Off! (Just one, though.)
- 50,202 wds. long
So, yes, as of about 9:30 PM last night I completed the eking out of my 7th NaNoWriMo win. (7th? Good Gods--quickly assembles mental list of NaNoWriMo novel drafts of yore--Yes, that's right, I've done this every year since 2002!) "Eking out" because, once yWriter told me I had more than 50K words, I used its handy "Export obfuscated NaNoWriMo text" command, opened the resulting text file, Selected All (CTRL-A), Copied (CTRL-C), and Pasted (CTRL-V) this into the NaNoWriMo Word Count Validator, and was rewarded with a word count downsizing to about 49380. I think it's the usual deal where the em-dash formation I'm in the habit of using (word!--'nother word!) causes two words to count as one in more conservative word count algorithms. Whatever. So I went back to the scene I was working on, did another few paragraphs, tried again, and so forth until the word count you see here. And the purple "Winner!" bar and the proud happy Viking Longship image and the web page icons and all that.
So I took today off. Well, not off off; I had to tackle the household finances, which had sort of languished for a month and a half. Dug out all the bills from the pile of Stuff To Be Dealt With, some of them past due; paid them; pulled up the checking and saving accounts online and made sure my balances matched theirs; y'know. The stuff you ignore when you're frantically trying to meet a deadline. I got that done. But otherwise, today was a play day. I went to the gym and rocked out in the bouldering cave, and I went to IHOP with friends and played Puzzle Pirates until I was completing carpentry puzzles in my brain on the bike ride home.
Tomorrow, however, I write again. For one thing, the novel still isn't really done. I haven't really gotten my characters from point A to point B, where point A is "at each other's throats" and B is "angrily declaring love for each other". I still haven't entirely disentangled my idea of how the bad guy functions and how the main character plans to fight him/her/it, although I do understand how the main character actually ends up defeating it. And, as usual, I haven't figured out a useful denouement. A novel-length story will often exist in my head with a total Hannah-Barbera laugh-track ending ("Quick, someone say something goofy so we can all laugh and go home!") for months before I finally figure out how to tie the bow on that package.
Also, there are other stories than the Demonic Sweater Story that could be finished and sent out to meet the nice people.
So. Today was playtime. Tomorrow is back-to-work time. To be precise, tomorrow at 11:30 when some NaNoWriMo buddies and I will meet up for coffee and writing time. Just because the calendar's ticked over from November to December doesn't mean the write-ins have to stop.
In Which I Entertain Myself, or "Writing: Ur Doin It Rite"
- 32,691 wds. long
Writing is an occupation with very few instances of external positive feedback. At least, for the beginning/amateur/unpublished writer. You're functioning in a vacuum most of the time. Sometimes you send out a story, and most of the time it comes back with a rejection letter attached. If you're lucky, the rejection letter says something like, "Sorry we couldn't use your story this time. It's really well-written and we hope you will continue to think of us." But most of the time the writer has to look inside for confirmation.
This, by the way, is one reason that peer critique groups might be popular. It isn't just the pragmatic necessity of getting comments from someone who doesn't already have the story living in their brain; it's also the chance to get someone in the real world to say, "Hey, this is good stuff. It has some flaws you need to fix, but you know what? You really are a writer."
That's my theory, anyway. A theory. The one I'm working on today.
Internal positive feedback comes in several flavors, most of which a writer has to discover herself. The most common one, I've found, is the simple enjoyment of the process. Writing is quite definitely work, but it is often fun too, especially in the rough draft phase. Which is something NaNoWriMo has going for it. NaNoWriMo is all about rough draft and having fun. And the fun comes in a bunch of flavors itself: the fun of telling a story no one else has heard yet because you made it up; the fun of knowing you can tell a story, that you are capable of inventing stuff whole cloth out of your head; the fun of being surprised when characters do something unexpected, or, if you prefer to sound less insane than that, the fun of suddenly having an unexpected idea about what your characters should do.
Me, I think the insane-sounding stuff is fun precisely because it sounds insane. Hell, I believe in magic. With or without a k at the end. I converted to Wicca partly out of a rebellion against the mundanity of the world: "The Goddess is too alive and magic is too afoot, so there!" I will cheerfully tell you that I expected yesterday's portion of the story to go one way, but that my characters had another plan, and if you tell me that my characters cannot have a plan because they are not real, I will blow a raspberry at you because they are too real, so there, thththbbbp!
For instance, here's what happened yesterday. Here was my plan. I expected Rocket to throw a tantrum and storm out when he couldn't convince Timothy not to get himself killed taking on the bad guy. I had his speech all thought out in my mind: "Fine. Fine! But if you think I'm going to stick around and watch you die, you can just keep thinking." Then he'd stomp out the door and not show up again until later on that night when he would try one desperate last time to change Timothy's mind.
That's what I expected to happen. But when I got to that point, Rocket did something else. He tossed aside ethical considerations and attractive melodrama, and instead brought the full power of his "What I say is true" supernatural ability to bear on Timothy, forcing him instantaneously to teleport them both the hell away from the bad guy. Then, to prevent him simply teleporting back once his magical influence had faded, he punched him out. And then a dragon nearly fried them both to a crisp, because, being given no time or free will to choose one location over another, Timothy had teleported them to somewhere that didn't actually exist. Or, rather, that existed in the same way that I think Timothy and Rocket exist. Which is to say, it was fictional. And the dragon was the one which Beowulf was going to kill himself slaying shortly afterward.
I was watching the New Orleans Saints pound the crap out of the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, and sitting next to a good friend who was doing her thesis on Beowulf. These circumstances may have influenced the punching-out part and the dragon part. Hard to say.
So that's part of the fun: being surprised by your characters. But later that evening I was surprised by another sort of writer enjoyment: realizing that my own half-written novel was living in my head the way a published novel does. You know that feeling? You get halfway through reading that book, you have to set it aside so you can get to work on time or whatever, and the story stays in your head, niggling at you: What happens next? You can't wait to get home, to read the next page, to be in the company of the characters you've been following...
Well, I was feeling that way about my novel yesterday. Even after I reached 30,000--ten thousand words in a weekend! go me!--and I was taking a well-deserved break with Puzzle Pirates and blogs, that niggling thing was happening. The part of my brain that gets addicted to experiences easily--the part that imagines me playing more Puzzle Pirates when I ought to be writing--that part of my brain was imagining the story even while I was trying to take a break from writing it.
The scene I'd stopped in the middle of, not knowing what comes next? It kept resurfacing in the back of my addled little brain. I wanted to know what happened next. And it wasn't that I wanted to figure out what happened next, being the writer and all. I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next, like a reader.
And that's cool. Cool and fun.
Which is all I really wanted to say today.
Day 11: Writing The Boring Stuff
- 18,688 wds. long
If the author is bored, the reader is quite definitely going to be bored too. However, sometimes you still gotta write the boring stuff. Maybe on revision it will become un-boring.
I haven't gotten to the really emotionally attached wincing with embarrassment stuff yet. I have to get through my MC's first date, first. And this is not a subject that intrinsically interests me. It's newcomer plot fodder, stuff that got added recently in order to make this story plausible as a Really Truly novel. The story that's been in my head for some 15 years now has mainly been about how the MC inherits her mother's supernatural nature, forces her way out from under her oppressive foster mother's thumb, and learns about her heritage. But in trying to redeem that plot from being a transparent case of angsty teenage wish-fulfillment into being a novel someone other than myself might actually want to read, the original characters have begun acquiring complexities (e.g. the foster mother isn't repressive at all; she's just very detached, and she knows some scary things that the MC doesn't know), and the plot has begun accruing secondary characters. Such as the MC's boyfriend.
And I'm just not really interested in this guy. Scenes with him seem to serve no other purpose than to give the movement time to crescendo (and give me a better chance of hitting the target word count). So I slog my way through those scenes, taking dictation as I watch them hold hands over the red-and-white checked table-vinyl at a second-rate pizzeria in Slidell, and I get bored, and I wonder why I should care.
We'll get there, never fear. We really are getting there. I'm finding new ways every day to tie him into my original conception of how the plot should work, so that his relationship with the MC plays a part in the process of her transformation. For instance, he asks her out only after she trusts him enough to say, "OK, you're going to think I'm crazy, but 1) I haven't managed to outgrow my imaginary friend, and 2) this imaginary friend has started making passes at me, and 3) I'm beginning to wonder whether he's all that imaginary after all." That seems to work on several levels. He genuinely cares for her, and wants to be there for her when she's distressed. And her leap of faith in trusting him with this convinces him that A) she deserves a leap of faith from him in return, and B) she's not going to laugh in his face after relying on him not to laugh at her. But then, for all that he cares about her, he does think she's a little mentally disturbed, and he thinks that it would be healthier for her to have a boyfriend than to have (in his view) externalized all those normal adolescent hormonal developments into an imaginary construct that sexually harasses her.
So... the boyfriend is a loving, caring, trusting and trustworthy person who also is a little patronizing and for-her-own-good manipulative. Which, I think, is realistically complex, and sets up the possibility for a scene where this ulterior motive comes out in the open and causes them to have a bit of a fight. Which tension will in turn be a plausible reason for the crux in the plot between the MC and her not-so-imaginary friend.
Also, the MC's eventual transformation will have a decided impact on the boyfriend. And the outcome of that will shape how the MC relates to her newfound powers. So everything gets worked into the network of causal relationships that push the story forward. It's all good, at least potentially so, and none of it ought to boring.
But it just isn't the stuff I've been looking forward to writing, that's all. It's the writing that's actual work, as opposed to the writing that comes springing fully formed and armed for battle out of the Muse's forehead. Of course, the latter sort of writing is a lot rarer than many people think, so where I get off complaining that I'm bored with the former sort of writing, I have no idea. But it's my blog, so I can complain if I want to. Nyah.
Anyway, that's my so-called insight for today. Take it or leave it.
(If I sound grumpy, blame the NFL. Today's game between the Rams and the Saints was painful.)
Day 10: Avoiding the "Well, Duh" Reaction
- 16,811 wds. long
There is an art to withholding information from characters and readers. There's a line beyond which lies the hell of Authorial Contrivance and the "Well, Duh!" reaction. We want to stay on the correct side of that line.
It's only natural that the author knows more than the characters and the reader. The author knows the whole story as one complete thing, whereas the reader is being told the story bit by bit and the characters are living it as it unfurls. But after that things get a little hairy. Some things the characters know but the reader doesn't. Some things the reader knows but the characters don't. Some characters know more than others about certain things.
And eventually everyone discovers stuff. Managing that discovery convincingly is an art.
So here's the thing. The main character's mother was, for all intents and purposes, a supernatural being. She wielded some remarkable powers which were as capable of causing tragedy as triumph. Our main character knows nothing of this, and the woman raising her--who was very close to the MC's mother but won't tell the MC for fear of the MC asking questions--would like to keep it that way. But at the same time, she is scared witless that the main character will inherit both those powers and the related tragedies. In today's scene, these conflicting goals (to keep the MC in the dark, but to forewarn the MC against catastrophe) cause the tension to escalate for both characters. The MC just wants to borrow the car and go on a date; her guardian is scared of the entire idea of the MC experiencing sexystuffs because the MC's mother had a way of causing fatalities when her emotions got out of control.
And here I am knowing everything about it and hating the conversation I'm writing because everything seems far too obvious. "Jeez, I'm writing an MC with an INT roll of 6! Surely she should be able to see through her guardian's lies about the extent to which she knew the MC's mother. Surely she should be able to figure out what her guardian's worried about? And surely any reader can see through what's up with that whole not-so-imaginary friend business, what with the NSIF going on about 'I knew her before.' I mean, well, duh!"
These sorts of insecurities will probably only be assuaged by the reactions of a beta reader. And beta readers aren't getting a hold of this in November, let me tell you. They may never. (You'll notice there's still no excerpt posted at my NaNoWriMo Profile.)
If the above sounds kind of cryptic, it's meant to be. I'm still not ready to get very specific here. I'm mainly just whining. (See? This post falls under the Whining category.) I am not likely to get less cryptic tomorrow, either. The stuff I'm really shy about letting anyone read is coming up in the next few scenes. But it will then be followed by several months (in story time) of the (relatively) boring time-passing stuff that I never bothered thinking about before (because it wasn't emotionally compelling to a daydreaming high-schooler). That might be safe to share. It might even be less boring than I fear. We'll have to see.
...annnnnnd All Caught Up Again!
- 15,103 wds. long
Not likely to fall behind tomorrow, either. Will be at the Tea Spot from noon until five. Noon until two is designated for writing, and I can't see why I wouldn't.
You know what I found out today? My main character's brand-new boyfriend (that was a new discovery last month, that she has a boyfriend) has got an elderly relative he refers to as Aunt Widget.
The story all takes place in the New Orleans area. The boyfriend is actually at his grandmother's place in Pearl River. Large southern families get nicknames. They do. Gods know that in my southern family, more people in it have silly nicknames than don't. Some bestowed by parents. Some by siblings. Some by very small children who hadn't got that pronunciation thing down yet. Some by the merciless affection of neighborhood friends (to this day, all the used-ta-been kids from my old block call me "Nooba." Sometimes "Nooba-cheese." I'm not entirely sure why, to tell you the truth). And then there's the collection of family codewords for ordinary objects, and individual phrases as simple as "Oh, apricots!" (I think Mom would have to tell you that one, I'd only get the details wrong) that will reduce the whole holiday gathering to tears of laughter because they all know exactly what hilarious exploit that refers to.
And then there's the way outsiders and former outsiders react to all this chaos. My husband has a southern family, too, but it's not nearly so large, and his left eyebrow got a workout the first time he met all my relatives. I mean, what with him always turning towards me and raising it sardonically while repeating, sardonically, the name he just heard. And being from Houston didn't somehow prepare him for me shopping at (R. I. P.) Schweggmann's. "OK, one more thing on my list," I said, "what was it now?"
"Oh," he says, "the muck-muck."
I looked at him blankly for a moment, then realized. "That's chow-chow, you dingbat!"
Right. Because "chow-chow" is a perfectly normal name for a mustard-based condiment. (Which Zatarain's no longer makes, I am deeply distressed to report. Apparently someone is selling jars of the stuff on Underbid. Soon as I get home on my own encrypted signal, and as soon as I figure out whether anyone's selling the stuff for cheaper, I'm placing a goddamned order, damnit!)
Which--to make a long story short ("Too late!" -entire cast of Clue)--is what sort of stuff I was drawing on when my characters had the following conversation:
"Sorry, my Aunt Widget just walked in. Wanna tell her Merry Christmas?"
"MERRY CHRISTMAS AUNT GIZMO!"
(in the distance) "What? Who you talking to? Get off the phone and come have dinner."
"OK. Gotta go."
"Tell your Aunt Thingamabob bon apetit for me."
I feel like it's trying to turn into a chapter from Good Omens. "Fine old Lancashire name, Device! Nothing wrong with it at all! Are you laughing? Stop laughing!" But, y'know, nothing wrong with that. At all.
Day 4: Still On Schedule / Ditching the Mary Sue phobia
- 6,849 wds. long
Hello. Back for more, as promised. Also, the Saints totally did kick the Jaguars' collective butts. It was brilliantly played. How about that onside kick, eh? "No, really, a field goal is nice, but we really wanted a touchdown. So... we're not gonna give you the ball just yet." And I'm all like, "Is that even legal?" because I'm not really knowledgeable about football at all, I just like watching my team win.
Anyway. One football game and 1667 words later...
So after digging up the "Namarie Sue" Making Light blog post to link to yesterday, I started reading it (and much of what it linked to) afresh. And part of the ensuing conversation rang very true, especially considering it mentions NaNoWriMo:
Mitch Wagner: "As a reader and wannabe fiction writer myself, I hate to think of up-and-coming writers who might be scared off of writing idealized versions of themselves because they're afraid of committing Mary Sue."
Kass Fireborn: Unfortunately, I gather it's so: Writing the Non-Mary-Sue Female Protagonist [now-defunct link to old NaNoWriMo forum topic]. There are five pages there discussing the problem of, well, writing the Non-Mary-Sue female protagonist, and that's just one of the threads which bring the concern up--and these days, NaNoWriMo is a broad enough cross-spectrum of future writers so you can figure if it's got that much of a discussion there, it's a problem elsewhere, as well. [...] So what you get, basically, is an effect on two kinds of people. One group contains people who, yes, might have written a Mary Sue if they hadn't seen this sort of thing, and went back and rethought their characters and as a result got something with better depth. The other group is full of people who wouldn't have written a Mary Sue--but they think they could have. They also think of not for grammar guides they'd have misused a semicolon, and if not for a class on plot structure they'd have had a novel that went nowhere. And so they go back and rethink their characters too, and start carefully sanding away certain bits of them, because they'd hate to give offense or do something as horrible as writing a Mary Sue. [...] If this sanding gets taken to extremes, what they end up with is, I suppose, a sort of anti-Mary Sue--a character so unremarkable you can't care about her at all.That is me all over. I'm sitting here so totally worried about the Sue-ishness of my main character that I'm, well, not so much sanding off her interesting bits as much as being made practically too paranoid to write her story at all.
I think the thing to remember here is, once again, rough draft. What you end up with on December 1 is a huge amount of total rough draft. Rough draft is supposed to be flawed. No one writes it perfectly on the first try--well, maybe some people do, but their example is not useful to us mere mortals. Our rough drafts get better as we continue practicing our craft, but then so do our revision skills, and our standards rise too. So we don't so much aspire to write publishable rough draft as we aspire to have better stories at the end of the writing-revising-polishing process.
As it is, the conclusions people came to on that Making Light comment thread can be summarized as follows: You can have author-insertion that isn't a Mary Sue. You can have admirable characters that aren't Mary Sues. Mary Sue is, quite simply, bad writing. If your wish-fulfillment story is well-written and its main character is well-rounded, it's not going to be a Mary Sue.
Also: A Mary Sue is the character that you're told to like. Because the author says so. For no other reason. Which condemnation says nothing at all about those characters that you come to like because they're genuinely likable.
Also: A pre-emptive remedy for Mary Sue-itis might be, "OK, so you have God-like powers. Now what?"
Also: Read the whole thread. It's good for you.
On a nearly unrelated note, Kass's mention of NaNoWriMo came about because several people upthread were outing themselves as NaNoWriMo participants: "It's rapidly becoming impossible to encounter a fairly large body of prospective writers without tripping over at least one WriMo." And this was 2003. There's even more more of us now. That we Nano'ers are considered a significant portion of the future write population, and that we can gab with pro writers who don't look down at us for choosing this method to produce our rough drafts, is a fine fine thing.
The Last-Minutest Short Story Ever!
- 5,655 wds. long
So I have now completed a full, actual draft of this story. And I do in fact intend to email it to Shimmer within the next couple hours. Yes, I'm nuts. But I said I'd submit, and gosh-darn-it, I'm going to submit.
Who knows? I may surprise myself.
I have a good deal of tightening up to do. It's too long for Shimmer's 5,000 word maximum. I also need to go back and make sure everything I want in it has actually gotten out of my head and onto the page, like what's the deal with Louise and Jimbo's Mom, and what Louise's Dad is up to, and all the parallels between Louise and Wendy, and of course making sure that it doesn't look too cheesy that Jimbo's got the same first name as Captain Hook. Y'know.
So. Back to the grind. More in a couple of hours.
Ending the Radio Silence
- 3,841 wds. long
We apologize for the inconvenience, but there was no Actual Writing to report on all week. Today Actual Writing has occurred and so our Actual Writing Coverage can continue. Thank you for your patience.
The first draft of the story is not done, but the shape is a lot clearer, especially now that the main character has decided that everything that happens is in fact her fault. She might be right, too, but I couldn't say. I wasn't there. I'll have to defer to her judgment on this.
Also. Long walks home from downtown Boulder, knitting needles busily in hand, are very good for brainstorming. You should try it. And then you'll be as sore about the shins and knees and elbows as I am, too. And it'll be good for you.
Suprise! Political Content
- 30,252 wds. long
Regardless of how the finished product looks, please believe me when I say that I very rarely set out to make a political point with my fiction. In fact, I can only think of one example--the post-Katrina New Orleans ghost story I began writing, flush with rage and helplessness during that first week after the storm as reports came in that the Red Cross had been denied entrance and trucks full of water were held indefinitely at the parish border--and that story will probably never be finished.
I certainly never set out to put politics in the books about Gwen and her bookstore. But tonight's writing turned up politics, all right. Tonight's writing featured the talemouse, that shy, retiring is-not-a-character, giving the Bookwyrm a furious lecture on reproductive freedom. I didn't expect that at all.
Her name is Gwen. Not 'prodigy.' Has a name. Isn't just a function. The talemouse is getting really mad now. How can the Bookwyrm be so obtuse? It knows so much, it governs the entire Fictional Hierarchy--how can it be so blind? Men characters, bad ones mostly, say, 'Woman's function is to reproduce.' Say, 'Should not have a job, should not write, should not be distracted from making babies.' Bookwyrm says, 'Gwen's function is to reproduce. Should not have bookstore, should not have family, should not be distracted from making stories.' He doubles over, panting with the effort of such speech. He has had to remember the voices of certain tertiary characters he's hidden inside in order to express himself so clearly. Bookwyrm. Woman-hating villain characters. Can't tell the difference.Well then. Rakash Sketterkin tells us how he really feels.
Perhaps we can blame the never-ending Election Thread over at Slactivist. I just caught up on reading it today, watching the thread go from readers staying up all night tracking county-by-county results from Virginia to all abortion, all the time. Or maybe this had been building up for a long time now, and I never knew it until my timid little talemouse got mad enough to stand up and say--to the Bookwyrm, who is for all practical purposes his God--"People aren't just functions. They're people."
Brave little talemouse. Bless him. One day he may become a real character after all.
A Couple Of Quick Observations
- 28,235 wds. long
First: When your main character is reluctant to do a certain necessary thing--like, say, confront the parents of the missing children in hopes of alleviating their suspicions--it helps mightily to give her more than one reason to do it. It's a good idea to get in their good graces, because they're the force behind the neighborhood distrust that keeps her business in the red. It's a great idea because they not only have influence in the neighborhood but they also have the police officer's ear; if they suspect her, he'll suspect her, which will make him less inclined to protect her from knife-wielding thugs. And it's a FANTASTIC idea because she knows she's supposed to think one of them hired the thug that's threatening her life. The last thing she needs is for the Evil Corporation Guy who hired the thug to realize that there's a cuckoo in his nest (the security guard that's in both their pay) feeding her vital information, like, "This actually has nothing to do with missing children. It's to do with property take-overs. Pretend you don't know that."
"Oh, God," she thinks, "I really am going to have to call these people! And talk to them! And make nice with them even though they are trying to run me out of business and quite possibly abused the children that I'm quite certain ran the hell away from home! I have to treat these people like they're human beings who have authority over me. Shit!"
Second: Nothing says "interesting stage directions" during a wee-hours-of-the-morning conversation between the protagonist and her de facto bodyguard like sexual tension! Yay! She's, so, hot-for-him, she's, so, hot-for-him... Bwahahahaha!
Poor Gwen. She's all nervous about having maybe been too forward and stuff. She doesn't know that by the second book she'll end up married to him. I know just how she feels. Well, aside from all the threats to her life, safety, and livelihood, and whatnot.