Character Misbehavior: What to Do?

What do you do with someone who just won’t behave?

I’m talking secretive, aloof, moody . . . She wants something, I know, but she won’t tell me what. She’s keeping me up nights and interfering with my WIP’s progress, for sure.

I’m not talking about a daughter or a friend or a sister, although this person is one. A sister, I mean. In fact, she’s an identical twin, which complicates things even further.

Robin: the character who “vants to be alone!”

"Silhouette of a Woman" Image courtesy of Lobster20/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Silhouette of a Woman
Image courtesy of Lobster20/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m talking about the main character in what I hope will become my third book. Her name is Robin. As I said, she’s a twin. She has dark, curly hair and green eyes, she’s twenty pounds or so overweight, she’s married with two sons, and she’s a nurse. Her twin sister has died, and Robin carries a terrible secret. That’s what I know.

Even after feedback on the first chapter at Writers in Paradise back in January, I’ve remained stumped by what Robin really desires and what will keep her from getting it. (You can read the short story that prompted this third novel idea at Prime Number: Issue 37; it’s called “Book of Lies.”)

I started over with the beginning, typing it into Scrivener and revising as the story seemed to lead me. I was still worried, though, about not knowing clearly enough who Robin is and where she’s going. I’ve tried applying Ann Hood‘s novel rubric she shared in the Writers in Paradise workshop. It’s a good tool to get a handle on what a story is about (can you say it in a sentence?), determine what the “container” is (time frame and place), and sketch out the main characters and plot points. The rubric helped, but I’m still not there.

Getting from here to there

I have to confess I’ve never been big on plot points, but I’m learning. I tend to want to let the story evolve, which means I probably have to do a lot more work than someone who is able to plan the book out, start to finish. So I had been feeling a little inept as a writer  until I read a piece in The Writer’s Chronicle last week (March/April 2013 issue).

Many writing experts contend that we should know everything we possibly can about a character before we begin. But in “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Fictus, Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing Too,” David Jauss takes the stance that we don’t have to know everything! In fact, Jauss says it may be preferable not to know; not knowing every little detail ahead of time may lead to richer characterization as we discover things about characters as we write them. (I highly recommend this article; if you’re an AWP member but not a subscriber, you can access it online. Or maybe you can find a copy at your library. It’s worth the read, especially if the issues surrounding characterization are of particular importance to you.)

What a relief!

What Jauss says doesn’t absolve me of all responsibility where this manuscript is concerned. I can’t put the writing on automatic pilot–wouldn’t that be interesting?–but his take allows me the freedom to write about this character and her circumstances and see if, after a while, I’ll discover along with her how she ticks, where she’s headed, and how she’ll get there.

So here we go, my make-believe friend, Robin! Let’s see where the words on the page take both of us.

How do you handle your less-than-cooperative characters? Are you a “know everything” writer or one who goes with the flow?

Stones in My Pockets: Resolve for 2013

Resolutions?

Today is January 3, and I have made no New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions (at least mine) are made for breaking. I resist them mightily. And yet, here on the Web, I feel surrounded by energy and optimism and lofty resolutions and writing challenges like Elissa Field’s January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan and Khara House’s January 2013 I Love My Blog, both of them worthy of note. I’m summoning the will to participate. Really, I am.

Create/Gerry Wilson
Create/Gerry Wilson

But the last of our holiday guests left yesterday, and I’m doing laundry. The Christmas decorations need to be taken down and put away. The grocery store looms. We are having our usual Mississippi winter weather, which means cold (by our standards) and rainy. These are days meant for sipping tea and reading a good book, not for challenging the mind. These should be days for rest and re-fueling.

Playing the Lead

A couple of nights ago, I dreamed I was playing the lead role in a Tennessee Williams play. I’m not sure which play it was–maybe A Streetcar Named Desire–and I’m not sure whether I was Blanche or Stella or a combination of the two, only that my role required a certain level of undress on the stage (yes, this was live theater), and my parents, who died in the early eighties, were in the audience. The play turned improvisational, and I felt it was up to me to carry it. I remember thinking in the dream that the action was plodding, the players sluggish and uninteresting, and the audience was losing interest. I woke up just as I was standing on the stage, anxious and alone, wrapped in a bath towel!

Why am I telling you this? I suppose I’m hoping for a dream expert among my readers, although I don’t really need one to interpret the dream. It’s about writing, and certain words are keys: undress, improvisational, responsibility.

First, the state of undress: I am most vulnerable when I’m writing, when I strip the facade and put words on the page.

And don’t we all feel naked before editors and contest judges and critics and agents with their pre-printed or email rejections at the ready? Those are our words. They are sacred to us, and when others don’t love them, it can be devastating. Or it can be motivating.

Life at the Improv

Back in the fall, when I was revising my novel, I focused mainly on a particular subplot. I had to improve my sense of when things moved along well and when they lagged. I needed to create a little mystery. I had to try to read my own book as any reader might, without any sense of what was in my head that hadn’t made it to the page. Remember that the play in the dream was improvisational, and I felt I was carrying the success or failure of the play on my shoulders. It was up to me to make it work, and when I felt it was slow and uninteresting–the flaws I fear most in my fiction, or here on this blog–anxiety kicked in, and I woke up, feeling quite undressed and vulnerable and responsible for the outcome. Nothing miraculous; just teeth-grinding hard work.

Turning . . .

What does all this have to do with the turning of another year?

I may not make resolutions, but the dream and its meanings have everything to do with resolve: to keep writing, to value my own work, to protect my time and organize it better, to say no when necessary (and to know when that is). To be brave, to take risks with the work. To send it out, as honest and as strong as I can make it.

So, for the record, I’m taking the stones out of my pockets for 2013. I will not be weighed down by whatever else is happening in my life. I will walk on water. I will be involved in a miraculous act of making.

And whenever I start to feel weighted down, I want to remember that dream because it was telling me some important things: to embrace the vulnerability and not be afraid, to embrace the time I have, to embrace the words, even when they’re messy and cantankerous, and especially when they go naked into the world.

When, in your writing hours or days, do you feel most vulnerable? What gives you resolve and strength? Tell me about it!

The Five Stages, Or Facing Up to the Re-write

Hi there.

After completing the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge, I’ve been absent from this space for a while. I wrote twenty-five posts during the challenge, many of which were emotionally grueling. (Here’s a sample post, just about in the middle: Age Twelve: The Great Void.) I’m glad I finished, although I wish I’d done what a friend of mine did. She’s stretching her memoir posts (way to go, Lara!) out over a number of weeks. Smart blogger, that one.

Anyway, I’m back, and I hope maybe you missed me a bit.

I’ve been busy re-writing–for what I hope is the final time–a 300 page novel. The bones of the novel are strong, I think, but there is this one subplot, you see, that needed to be fleshed out. And flesh I did, for several hours every day for a week.

“Child Crying And Lying On Grass” by imagerymajestic
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

It occurred to me during this process that facing up to a major re-write is a little like Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. Let me explain:

First, Denial: There’s nothing wrong with this character. (Substitute subplot, setting, dialogue, structure . . .) It’s certainly not bad. Maybe it’ll squeak by if I’m lucky enough to have someone read it. Like an agent.

Then there’s Anger: How dare my readers suggest that the book needs more work! I poured my heart, my brain, my sweat and tears into it! I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve had to get stronger glasses. I’ve sacrificed two years of my life! It’s done, and nobody can tell me otherwise!

Next? Bargaining: If I move this one scene about the preacher, then the problem with the flashback within the flashback within the flashback will surely go away. That’s fair, right?

Ah, Depression: “I can’t do this. I’ll never pick up a pen again. I’m worthless and stupid. Why did I ever think I could write a book? I can’t even put a decent sentence together. I can’t even spell. I don’t know a cliche from a bon mot.” Destroy the files. Shred the backup CDs. Go to bed with a bottle of wine and a good book. Somebody else’s book, of course.

Finally? Acceptance. I will go on. I’ll never be the same (poor little bruised writer-ego), but the work has to be done.

I would add a stage of my own, one I experienced over the last few weeks, and that’s Determination: I will tackle the problem, and over time, I’ll solve it. I’ll have a eureka in the middle of the night. I’ll dream the answer. I’ll write it over and over again until I get it right. Whatever it takes, I’ll get it done because it’s necessary. It’s what a writer does.

From helplessness to empowerment: yes, that’s the ticket!

Obviously, dealing with a re-write is nothing like dealing with real grief. We all know that. But in the moment, when all seems lost and the book (or story or poem or memoir) seems impossible to save, haven’t we all felt these emotions? Those who grieve eventually get on with life, and we’ll get on with the book. Won’t we!

How do you cope when you get discouraged with your writing? What or whom do you rely on to find the energy and the will to press on?