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?

“Small Stones”: Meditative Writing to Start the New Year

A New Year discovery this morning—and yes, I know it’s not Monday Discovery day, and it’s already the tenth of January:

jan13largeKaspa & Fiona at Writing Our Way Home have launched their third Mindful Writing Challenge (previously known as the River of Stones) during January 2013. It seems a fine opportunity to quiet the mind at the beginning of each day, before the writing work or the housework or the errands or the other distractions of the day take over.

Kaspa and Fiona call these bits of writing small stones, which they define as “a very short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.”

What a lovely idea, to stop and capture a moment, observe it for all it’s worth, and write about it. So I’ll try writing a small stone a day for the rest of January and post them here.

For January 10, there’s this:

Distant thunder. Rain sheens the deck, scattered with the last brown leaves.

Maybe this could be a haiku? That’s what “small stones” remind me of.

Distant thunder rolls.

Water sheens the deck, scattered

With the last brown leaves.

So here’s to mindfulness, always good for the writer’s eye.

How do you enter writing mode? A cup of good strong coffee? A few minutes of meditation? Tell me how you prepare your mind for the task at hand.

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?