Some of you may know that I have participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge for two years now (2015 & 2016). I took up the challenge last year because I needed something to give my mind a project with a deadline and participating brought me some sanity. I decided to accept the challenge again this year because it seems it makes an excellent motivator for me and my writing. Anyway, I was sitting here musing about my book and thought I’d share a few thoughts with you.
I’m a planner. I just am. Even if I go completely off script I like to have at least made a plan to leave and return to. So when I set out to write a book I go in with an outline, character charts, reference photos on a Pinterest board, Spotify soundtrack, and an energy that’s both excited to dive in and afraid of what will come out. My wall is covered in color-coded sticky notes as we speak. So, in 2015 when I wrote the first book in my dark fantasy series I had outlined the entire trilogy and was ready to go. My number one rule with any research paper or essay is stick to the outline. I generally do so much research that that rule is key. So much effort has gone into formulating an outline that all you need to do is add a bit here and here and bam! Instant essay. I set off with the same game plan, except this time I kept finding my story deviating from the outline.
Was it me? I mean, technically yes, but it wasn’t a conscious decision most of the time. I always heard authors mention their characters talking back to them and never really understood it. Not until I really began getting elbow deep into my own novel. Here I was, a captain ready with a carefully laid route and suddenly I find my ship crowded with all sorts of folk and they all want to stop here or there or way down that way. After a while I began following my characters instead of the other way around. Sure sometimes I had to stop and reign in their ideas but for the most part the words simply flowed when I sat back and let them play it out for theirselves.
It sounds really really weird. I know.
As some of you may also know I studied theatre in college, both on and back stage. So as I lay in bed sleepily watching the sun rise outside my window and my brain buzzed with the day’s writing goal (I’m almost 75% done with book two!) I realized something. I realized that writing a book filled with characters is a bit like trying to direct a play with actors. All directors have their own style but some of the best productions I’ve seen have been directed by people who are open to collaborating with their actors. The director makes sure to keep them true to the script but often sits back and watches the actors take charge of their characters or sometimes they go back and forth with character suggestions and blocking ideas. Collaboration has truly brought together some of the greatest plays, musicals, and films.
When I am writing my fingers race across the keys typing like wild, but every so often they freeze. My eyes are dragged back to the words I’ve just written and my face scrunches as suddenly one of my characters raises their hand in protest, question, or suggestion. “I just don’t think my character would talk like that. You’re making me sound like that guy and we’re totally different” one would say. I’d glance over their dialogue and realize that they’re quite right! I hadn’t been paying close enough attention and had let their voices begin to blend. “That’s a surprise to me? Really? I dunno, I think I’m smart enough to have figured it out or at least suspected it before now” another might wonder critically.
“Is that really what I’m wearing?”
“What am I wearing? You haven’t said! I want everyone to know what dress I’ve got on.”
“Can I help lead the battle? I’m not really needed in the palace…”
“Do I really have to die?”
“I don’t think my character is going to make it…”
“I shall die! I volunteer! Take me!”
“You keep trying to make my character care about her, but I just don’t think she cares about anyone. Or perhaps that’s how I should play my character? She’s torn inside! A part of her longs to form friendships but too much holds her back. She has to choose between revenge and love, and revenge just pulls too hard. Yes, I think we should go with that.”
“We need a big musical number here, I think. There’s always room for a grand musical number.”
Talk talk talk! I’m telling you, sometimes they just don’t shut up! When I first began writing I heard nothing. I knew other authors talked to their characters but I wondered how true that really was or if it just sounded cool when giving advice to us on their tours. Well, I can’t speak for them but I can speak for me and sometimes I feel like a tired director who has dragged my fingers through my hair so many times trying to keep up and organize and contain it all that my hair stands on end like it’s defying gravity itself.
It is weird, though, to be writing and suddenly have my hands halt as a voice inquires about a character choice. Even the technicians get in on it occasionally!
“We should do this sort of lighting for that scene, I think. These colors would really set the tone,” suggests the lighting director in a soft whimsical voice. “Perhaps a few thunderclouds too… Oh, lighting could be fun!”
“Write to this song! Yes! This song, put it on repeat, it fits perfectly,” shouts the sound designer excitedly.
“No music. No, no, no, that’s all wrong. I can’t find a thing that fits this chapter. Just write in silence because anything you play will completely throw us off balance,” he sighs resignedly.
“I don’t see why you don’t include all of my designs,” the costume designer pouts. “Really, don’t the readers want to know what everyone is wearing? It’s a crime to let such creations go to waste!”
“Mfawefismmer,” a voice calls from offstage. With a loud gulp and slurp of soda he repeats, “The sandwiches are here!” (The set designer can often be found taking a break for food, smoking, or even naps. I really should have a word with him or no one will know what anything in my fantasy world looks like! I can’t keep tossing around the word “castle” or “woods” because that’s far too vague)
It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. I mean, it’s tough enough to sit myself down to even begin writing and keep writing (I enjoy typing with the speed of the Flash but that also opens up distractions like Facebook, YouTube, and even this blog…oops). Then it’s a whole other challenge to invent dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. Even with an outline things must grow details and life. So it becomes yet another challenge when I’m having design meetings on top of cast meetings on top of meal breaks. Not only do those interruptions pause my writing and drag out the time it takes to write my day’s goal but they often bring several changes with them. Some I take note of but save for when I go back and do revisions, more than a few I ponder but ultimately dismiss, but others require a more immediate decision. I don’t always agree but most of the time they’re right.
When I finished the first book and its revisions I went back to glance through my 3-book outline to prepare for writing the sequel. I laughed. I had to chuck it and start the second book’s outline practically from scratch for even book one’s story had left behind my very first outline as a vague memory. Turns out that’s not a bad thing. That original story plan was fine but my characters took me elsewhere and I still feel excited about where it goes.
Well, now that I sound like a proper crazy person, I’ll leave you with two bits of advice that I’ve received from some of my favorite authors and which I’ve also found true for myself.
#1 – FINISH THE DRAFT. There will be typos. There will be wooden scenes and ridiculous dialogue. There will be too many details or not enough. There will be missing information or perhaps a giant info dump that makes your head pound. LEAVE IT. Just crank out that first draft. I promise you, revising is so much easier than writing on a blank page.
#2 – OUTLINE: it maps your course and keeps your story focused but it’s not a rule written in stone, it’s more of a guideline. Some authors don’t outline. Some authors write their scenes out of sequence and match it all up later. My Type A brain cannot even fathom such a thing but if that’s how you operate then do it that way. I just find that having an outline keeps everything on topic but it doesn’t mean I can’t deviate if I don’t want to.
#3 – WRITE FOR YOURSELF. This sounds so incredibly selfish but you really have to. If you write for someone else you will only listen to what they might want to read and not to what your story needs to say. If you write for a target audience because it’s what’s popular or will sell well then you’ll get stuck in your head and you’ll completely miss what your book could have been. Plus, something becomes popular because someone has already written it so write something different and shove it at the publishing industry until they take it. Most importantly, if you write for others and they reject it you will be crushed. However, if you write for yourself and others reject it then it hurts at least a little bit less because you like your book and you wrote it for yourself so as long as you like it then that’s a goal met and a job well done. Finding others who like it simply becomes a wonderful bonus (and hopefully, one day, a nice little paycheck).
…yeah, about that outline advice…I don’t really follow it when I write for my blog as I know you all can tell. But I reserve this space for freeform writing and thinking. It’s good to have a place for that. I tend to think far too much. I’d be singing and then my voice teacher would interrupt me and tell me to stop thinking and then she’d see my face and laugh and say to stop thinking about thinking! I sorta think brain cramps are real. Some days I can write more than others but even back in school when I wasn’t writing but obviously had my days filled with class I had to let my brain relax. Tension definitely collects in the brain even if it’s not as obvious as when you get it in your shoulders. I try to read a book I’ve read before, watch a silly movie I’ve seen ages ago, take my dog on a walk (with music in my headphones otherwise I’ll spend the whole walk thinking even more), binge-watch a sitcom on Netflix, have a very loud singing and dance party where I belt out every song in my Broadway musical playlist.
#4 – WRITE LIKE YOU’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME…BUT ALSO RELAX. (Hehe did you like my Hamilton reference?) Look, if you don’t take your writing seriously (assuming it’s something you’re seriously interested in) then you’ll never finish that draft or get anywhere at all. Try writing every day, trying setting aside a certain time to just write, try NaNoWriMo to get you started. But don’t forget that you can’t force it! When you’re stuck, the harder you think and the harder you push the more frustrating it will become. When you’re stuck, try and see if you can climb that hurdle. Sometimes you’ll get stuck but with a little push you can knock right through it. Or just work on another part of your book (another scene, cover design ideas, make a Pinterest board, etc.). If you feel yourself starting to get truly frustrated however, then do something else. Do anything but write or even think about your book. Let your brain have a break and relax. Let your thoughts circle the issue lazily and eventually something will come. I’m NOT saying to quit, or to lock away your manuscript for months on end. I’m just saying don’t try and force it because even if words eek out they probably won’t be worth keeping.
Right, well, I’ve definitely rambled on for ages and I know you all want to get back to your weekend. I have now spent good novel writing time on blog writing (ah, ever the procrastinator) so I shall grab some toast and get to work.
Have a lovely weekend!