Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Kill Your Darlings, or Maybe Just Lock Them in the Basement

Even though I'm in the early stages of second draft revisions, I’m already slicing through the manuscript with a word machete.The second draft for me is usually nailing down characters and getting the plot points decided on, expanded, and rewritten. But it’s a lot of that old adage, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, too. As all writers know, it’s a difficult thing but of course a necessary evil.

So far I’ve gotten rid of one secondary character by combining him with another as they both served the same purpose, I’m killing at least one minor subplot, and I’m changing some major details about my main character and his situation. The parts that are changing aren’t what’s hard, because those things are making the story better (I hope!). But deleting whole scenes that I maybe sort of like, at least in part, can be tough even when I know they aren't working and have to go.

Rather than completely killing my darlings, I open a new file of “CUT SCENES/LINES.” I paste the discarded parts of my draft in there, just in case I need them later and just in case I'm not ready for them to completely die. It’s something I’ve done for all my books, and I don’t think I’ve ever opened any of those files to revisit or reuse those scenes. But there is something soothing about keeping them around, even if just in theory.

So, yes, get rid of your darlings, don’t let them stay in the novel when they aren’t working, but maybe just lock them in the basement or dungeon and not murder them completely.

Happy writing, friends!

Friday, May 13, 2016

How to Write Real, Rounded, and Memorable Characters

Revision time!

One of the best things about writing (and reading!) is good characters. It can also be one of the challenging parts of writing. Below are some ways to brainstorm and work with characters to get the most out of them on the page. I also do a lot of these exercises with my students in my creative writing classes, and we always end up with characters we can’t quite forget as a result.

Making lists. This is something I often do during first drafts, or even before starting a project. The idea is to keep the list going for longer than feels natural, at least 20-30 minutes straight. It is HARD to fill the time, but you can't stop. List every single attribute you can think of for the character. Everything. From the physical to lifestyle, to favorite color, food, childhood memories, fears, anything (*for a list of ideas to get you started, see end of post). The point is to keep listing and listing, and listing, even when you run out of things to write; that’s when some of the most unique attributes will surface. Characters will come to life, and become rounded and real on that list. Even if his/her favorite movie or the three mile a day treadmill run she hates or that time his dad threw away his favorite stuffed animal as a child never makes it into the book, the author knowing those details will inform the character and the writing. If they are rounded out/real in the author’s mind, it’s much likelier they’ll transmit to the page that way. Now you aren’t dealing with just a name on the page, but a real live person with likes, dislikes, a history, and a future beyond the book.

Pinterest board. I make a Pinterest inspiration board for each book I'm working on. Getting visual can really kick start the brain and get me in the mood and feel of the book. I pin any pictures that have anything to do at all with the book, even minor things from small scenes. For example, I may pin lots of beach pictures if that’s my setting, and even character inspiration for physical attributes, but I also may pin ice cream sundaes or outfit or hobby pictures that my character would like. The idea is to get in the character’s head and world.

The art of writing letters. I often write letters from or between my characters.  They can discuss things that are going on in the book, or things “behind the scenes” that never make it into the book. This “off the screen” communication will inform the characters a lot in the writer’s mind.

Similarly, the interview. Interviewing the characters can be a lot of fun and so very helpful. Have an “interview” sheet of questions. Have each character “fill it out” in their own voice/words. This will help distinguish them from each other. The characters that the author has spent time positioning and moving through dialogue and actions in the novel can now have a voice of their own outside of all that. Again, it’s a really fantastic way to make them feel like their own person/a real person, outside of being a book character, as well as a helpful way to keep multiple characters from sounding too similar.

Happy weekend, friends! And happy writing!

Xoxoxo, Jenn

*Some ideas to get you started with your character lists:

Start with details, these are easiest - physical description, lifestyle, job, favorites (food, color, memories, etc.) family, friends, religion, hobbies, education, perfume, clothing, bad habits, sensitivities, pet peeves, fears, how they take their coffee ... the list goes on and on.

Then you can go a little deeper:

History/Backstory - absolutely anything that happened to this character as a child, adult, etc.
Physical appearance
Dialogue (how do they speak and what does it reveal)
Actions (how do they act and what does it reveal)
Economic status
Relationships - Family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances
What does this character care about?
What does this character want?
What types of things do they do when no one is watching?
Innermost thoughts
Personality traits - selfish, caring, self conscious, proud, this list can go on and on.
What contradictions do they have?
Aspirations, hopes, dreams
How do other characters act around your character?
How do they react to your character?
How does your character treat others?

Okay, I'll stop there, this was supposed to be a footnote, and I got a little carried away. I could keep this list going forever, because once you get started, the possibilities are endless!

Monday, May 9, 2016

On First Drafts and Rainy Days

Central Park

Last week, I finished the first draft of my newest book. Cue confetti cannons and heart eye emojis. I’m so excited for this one, and excited especially since it’s been an idea that was kicking around in my brain for a while before getting down on the page.  Despite a week of soggy, gloomy weather here in New Jersey, I enjoyed the days after my draft was done, feeling the high of completion and the happy sigh of reaching the end.

The celebration won’t last forever; I’ll be neck-deep in heavy revisions before long. This draft, like all first drafts (or all my first drafts, anyway), is extremely rough. I’m very excited by the characters in this story, but I know much will change in their world by the time this book is ready for anyone else’s eyes.

A funny thing happened after my draft was done, as it almost always does. When I’m drafting, it’s go go go to the finish. No stopping, no looking back. I’m a pantser (meaning I don’t plan or plot at all), and I’m often figuring out the story as I go along. I usually have a vague idea of where it will all end up, and I write straight through the first draft without stopping, revising, or reading back at all. I don’t even stop for typos when I’m in the zone! But as much as I want that first draft done, so I can get into the fun and nitty gritty of heavy revisions, where the story really comes alive and all the hardest work takes place, something odd happens. Once I’m done with a project, I immensely miss it. I miss the rush of first drafting, and the writing itself. Revisions are where the real magic happens, in my experience, but that first draft feeling is hard to capture at any other point of the writing process.

The sun managed to come out again on Sunday and we spent Mother’s Day in the city – doing some of our favorite things, visiting The Museum of Natural History and Central Park and going out for a nice dinner. It felt so great to have the sun on our faces again after all the dreariness of last week.

This week will be all about spring time, so I hope the good weather stays. I’ll be gardening and brainstorming, getting ready to dive back into the new book for revisions soon.

Happy spring week ahead to everyone! Hope you have a good one.


Central Park

Friday, May 6, 2016

Swinging on the Monkey Bars, Adult-Style

When I was a kid, there were these unconquerable monkey bars on the playground. They loomed large, sunlight glinting off smooth silver metal, a backdrop of playground equipment stretched wide across the schoolyard behind.

At recess each day, I watched friend after friend swing across them, tongues out, legs swaying, arms pumping with muscle and skill. I most often stood off to the side, watching with feigned disinterest and concealed awe. Then I’d dash off for a game of tag, or another turn on the burning hot metal slide. I had tons of fun on that playground, but I really wanted to cross those monkey bars.

This was the 80s, so they were just your plain metal monkey bars, nothing connected to a play structure, not colorful, safe, hard plastic, no metal clad in rubber to protect against blisters. The ground of course, was dirt, not mulch, and certainly not the soft spongy rubber ground of playgrounds today. Each end had a ladder of maybe five or six rungs, and probably ten or fifteen across. Crossing those bars felt as impossible as swimming across an ocean.

Sometimes I’d climb up, lean out and grab the first rung and pretend to be a princess in a tower or a pirate on the bow of a ship. Sometimes I’d actually go out on the first rung (the nerve it took!) and then jump down, landing on my feet, knees bent, before running away in a game of chase, as if I’d planned it that way all along. Testing myself always proved that I couldn’t do it. I was weak, with no upper body strength and way too much fear to keep me from even trying. I shouldn’t even bother, I mostly thought. But still, those monkey bars nagged at me, like a dog with a bone.

One day, finally, I decided: this time I would do it. It was after school, not as crowded as during recess, though there were kids around. I dropped my book bag in the dirt under one the shade trees and made my way to the bars. I got to the top of the ladder, took a big breath, and threw myself with the gusto of Mary Lou Retton onto the first bar (It was the 80s, she was an amazing gymnast, and she was strong. I would channel Mary Lou.)

And then I was doing it! I was swinging. I went from bar to bar, arms aching like fire was coursing through my muscles, breath coming ragged and hard. No one was around to film or video me – this was the 80s, after all – but I bet I had a look of concentration and at least a halfway smile. I. Was. Doing. It.

And then I fell.

Make no mistake, it wasn’t the normal jump off the bars because I was scared or because I was weak, where I’d land on my feet and run away. This was the fall from a real, serious attempt, from total concentration and swinging motion. I landed on my butt, my tailbone striking the packed dirt with a thud that I felt all the way in my throat and teeth.

I didn’t move, and I was unable to take a breath. Cue panic! A friend ran over to help me up, but I waved her off, motioning to my mouth and chest. I couldn’t breathe! I could not take a breath! Was I going to die? But in only a few seconds, my breaths were even again, and I was back on my feet, and running around with my friend.

I hadn’t made it all the way across, but I’d gotten way further than I’d ever before tried. The moment of falling had been terrifying and disheartening, but once the panic of not breathing ebbed, the strength I had managed filled me with a sort of pride I didn’t dare say out loud. I mean, I’d done more than I ever had, maybe even more than I believed I could, but I still hadn’t made it. What kind of person is proud to make it halfway? The pride mingled with a sort of self-defeating feeling that I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t try the monkey bars again that day.

But the wind has been knocked out of me several times since then. That’s the way of life, right? When something bad happens, it momentarily stops us from breathing, it stops our world from turning. It knocks the breath out of us, and makes us so terrified in the moment, that we don’t think we will make it to the next.

It happens in moments of grief and despair when emotions and pain are so overwhelming we aren’t sure we will recover or survive.

When my son first had seizures, every single one would stop me in that moment, that second by second anguish of feeling like I couldn’t breathe, of we will not get up from this. But we did. When he got his second diagnosis, and his third, when his learning troubles skyrocketed . . . I couldn’t breathe through any of it. Survival was a minute by minute thing. But I got up. I took the next breath. What else do you do?

Parenting, especially, is such an unknown. Every day it’s swinging out and hoping you make the right choices. You grasp for the next rung without even seeing, sometimes, where it is. As my kids get older, I cringe to realize that many days now, it’s watching them take the risk, and hoping they don’t fall.

Sometimes they do, just like me. Just like all of us. So I help them up, and urge them, even with sometimes silent reluctance, to try again. I cheer when they make it, I encourage when they don’t.

I have to remind myself to do the same for me.

Writing is always like this. It’s the exhilaration of swinging, the thought of I’m actually doing this that keeps me starting and swinging and, yeah, sometimes falling.

In work, in parenting, in life, in writing and publishing, it’s all those monkey bars. It’s looking from afar at first, it’s sizing up the next attempt. It’s measuring, it’s planning, it’s wondering if I can. But then eventually, it’s climbing the ladder, and going out on that first rung, and using every ounce of strength I have to try to get across. Sometimes I make it. Many times I don’t.

I fall a lot. A whole lot. But I’ve learned how to land and I’ve learn that getting the wind knocked out of me isn’t the worst thing, even when it's the really, really hard thing, the impossible thing. I’ve learned that I will get up again, that of course I will survive, even when it hurts. Even when the hurt is really bad. So I keep climbing, I keep swinging, and I celebrate the times I make it across and I learn from the times I don’t.

Even when I fall, my arms gain strength for the effort. I can carry a lot with these arms.