On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

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How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.

This…

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Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

Shortening

The word count on draft #3 of Wolfie just slipped below 100000, from six digits to five, from this:

Word count for draft #2

to this:

Word count for draft #3 (in progress)

I cheered out loud, though (or maybe because) no one but the dog could hear me. Once he realized that no outing and no treats were coming his way, he went back to sleep.

I’ve blogged before about how I don’t count words when I’m writing. It’s true: I don’t — but I sure notice the word count when I’m revising.

I expect my early drafts to sprawl. Early drafts are my discovery phase. With nonfiction, I’m discovering what I know and think about a subject. With fiction, it’s discovering what my characters are up to. In Wolfie I’ve given them a puzzle to solve — several puzzles, in fact.

Some of the puzzles weren’t there at the beginning. They’ve appeared in the writing, and they’re turning out to be interrelated in interesting ways. This is also true of some characters. Shannon thought she’d left her alcoholic family far behind. I was as surprised as she was when her younger sister, Jackie, left a message on her answering machine.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I steal imagery from gardens all the time. Significant revelations sprouted in the second half of draft #2. In draft #3 I’ve worked their roots in earlier and let them grow in fresh soil. Those early clues have served their purpose, but now they’re superfluous. Zap zap zap.

Basil sproutlings

This is more like pruning, or pulling excess seedlings. I’ve been doing this on and off all month to my basil plants. I wish I had enough containers and a big enough garden to give all the little seedlings a good home, but I don’t, and if I don’t give a few of them room to grow there’ll be no pesto for me in September.

“Kill your darlings” is a writerly cliché — I think it means don’t get too attached to your lovely phrases, sentences, and paragraphs — but at this point I’m not having much trouble deciding what to keep and what to delete. This is a good sign. It means I’m focused more on the story and not so much on my precious prose. Sure, some of the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are lovely, elegant, clever, whatever, but they’ve served their purpose. They’re history.

Sometimes, though, I hesitate: Is this sentence or paragraph or scene superfluous, or does it add something important to the story? Is this word really a better choice than that one? I take my hesitations seriously. In these cases, I track my changes in Word so I can reconsider them later. I flip back and forth between the revised version and its predecessor. I don’t have to decide — yet.

When I come back a few days later, the issue has usually resolved itself without my worrying about it. Time may be the self-editor’s most important ally.

I don’t have a target length limit in mind for this book. I want it to find its own best length, but I don’t want it to wind up as a doorstop either. So how do I know what’s essential and what’s peripheral? Wolfie is the story of a woman, a girl, and a dog. Each one of them has a backstory that could probably be a novel, or at least a novella, in itself. I need to know a lot of that backstory, but not all of it belongs in Wolfie. 

When Shannon’s sister Jackie showed up, though, I saw immediately that her story cast both light and shadows on Glory’s, and it helped show Shannon the way forward. At first the extended sequence where Shannon shows Jackie around Martha’s Vineyard (where Shannon and I both live, albeit on different planes) seemed like an extended detour from the real story, but as it took root and grew, I realized it wasn’t. In draft #3 I’ve been integrating it with the other main threads and watching it deepen and grow.

When I’m revising, my rational mind is wide awake and overseeing the process, but so much of revision is done by feel: I have a hunch, or I just know. Which makes it hard for the rational mind to explain, but I keep trying.

The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

One reason I’m not blogging much here is that I’m getting (other) sh*t done. Also blog posts like this say it better than I can. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any editorial or writerly questions or comments, please use the Got a Question? tab above to send ’em in.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process…

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How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

There’s enough good advice in this excerpt that I’m seriously thinking of buying the book. I love revising and find it satisfying, but I often don’t know how to explain what I’m doing, or what needs doing, or how I know what to do. Maybe this will help.

Nonfiction author Dinty Moore shares some tips and tricks on how to look through a draft and make important revisions painlessly.

Source: The Story Cure: How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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How to Write

In a New Year’s Day post to From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, also known as “my other blog,” I wrote about the only New Year’s resolution I remember making as an adult. It was for 2002 and, surprise, surprise, it was about writing.

mud-cover-smI’d been working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, for three or four years at that point, usually in fits and starts.  I’d never successfully completed anything longer than 40 pages. It was like 40 pages was the edge of a cliff and now that I had a novel draft of 300 pages or so, I was looking down into an abyss with nothing under my feet. I was terrified.

Terror kept me from looking at my manuscript, and the longer I went without looking, the more certain I was that the thing was total, unsalvageable crap.

So my resolution? I will work on the  novel every day until it’s done.

And I did. Some days I wouldn’t open the Word file till five minutes to midnight. Every single time I’d see that the ms. wasn’t crap at all and that just by looking at it I’d know what to do next.

guitar“Beginner,” my New Year’s Day blog post, is about learning to play the guitar. For (semi-)recovering perfectionists like me, learning anything new or doing anything for the first time can be very scary, and sure enough, learning new things is hard. My fingers won’t do what I want them to do, or they won’t do it fast enough, or everybody else in the class is getting it faster than I am. Yadda yadda yadda.

As a teenager I had fantasies of falling asleep and waking up a guitar virtuoso. It never happened. I didn’t dare pick up a guitar or even tell anyone how much I wanted to learn how to play. At that point in my life, being a fumble-fingered beginner was too scary to contemplate.

The intriguing thing is that by that point I was already pretty good with words, and over the decades I’ve gotten better. If I’m a virtuoso at anything, it’s writing and editing — which, by the way, I didn’t realize were considered separate skills till I was promoted from clerical worker into my first editorial job. I was 28 at the time.

But I don’t remember how I learned to write, any more than I remember learning how to speak English. Come to think of it, I had the same fantasies about French, Spanish, and Arabic that I had about the guitar: that I’d wake up one morning with a native’s fluency, having skipped the years of stumbling around making a fool of myself.

I do remember diagramming sentences in grade school, and vocabulary quizzes.  In fifth grade, I wrote a story for my class’s one-shot newspaper. I also adapted a young readers’ biography of Patrick Henry into a play that my class produced. (I got to play Patrick Henry. My most vivid memory of the production is that Thomas Jefferson was twice as tall as I was.)

So evidently I’d achieved some facility by that point, though I’ve no recollection how. I must have progressed through the beginner and intermediate stages without major trauma. By the time perfectionism kicked in for real, probably in early adolescence, I must have been so confident in my facility with words that I knew I couldn’t look or feel like a fumble-fingered fool.

The big problem with not knowing how I learned to write is that I haven’t a clue how I’d go about teaching writing. I’ve actually considered taking a how-to-write course or two, just to find out how others do it. Unfortunately, or maybe not, the opportunities available locally are very limited. Sure, I could devise lessons about parts of speech and sentence structure and the other mechanical stuff, but how to teach the feel for the language that makes me so good at what I do?

I haven’t a clue, beyond “Keep writing, keep reading, keep listening, keep trying new things.” If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know!

6 Questions for Creative Reflection

The only New Year’s resolution I made in my adult life was when I was working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and was desperately afraid I was going to choke and not finish it. I resolved to work on it every day until it was done. Note that I did not resolve to write X number of words every day or for X number of hours. Sometimes I was so panicky that I opened the file at 10 minutes to midnight — and every single time I found something that needed doing.

Pretty much my only resolution is “Keep going,” and I make it every day. Nevertheless, I do like this list of non-resolutions and think I will give them a try. Maybe you will too.

Business in Rhyme

creative_reflection

New Year is often a time when we want to close one chapter of our lives and start fresh – with new ideas, with new energy and determination to fulfill our goals.

What usually happens, we do set new goals but as the months progress, so does our goals whittle along with autumn yellow leaves – until they become forgotten, unfulfilled and replaced by random events called life.

Instead of making a New Year’s resolution list, I have a different proposition for you. Why ‘hit your head against the wall’, and think of what and how you can accomplish when you are looking for the answers in the wrong place?

Here are 6 questions for your creative reflection exercise that can help you evaluate what you have accomplished in the previous period/year and maybe start from there? You might have a project that you could finish or idea that didn’t…

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