Happy New Year to all my readers.
I hope the year 2011 brings you great joy, peace and at least some success with your writing. As I explained yesterday, one of my main goals for this year is to be published in a variety of forms: novels, picture books, articles, poems, short stories and whatever else life throws on to my path. I am also determined that this year will also see lots of submissions. If you are not submitting to publishers there is no way you can get published, so I’m determined that this is one area of my writing that needs to change.
Life is more than writing, of course, but over the last few years as I completed my MA Creative Writing degree there were some things which were neglected. As I said yesterday, I’m not really into making New Year’s resolutions. I’ve observed that most people don’t keep them however well intentioned they might be. I prefer setting firm goals with definite, achievable targets. My writing goals include a daily target for the number of hours spent on writing, the number of words written and the number of poems and stories submitted to publishers. I also have goals for other aspects of my life. These include:
- Reading: writers are readers so this is of utmost importance. This year I plan to read 100 titles (books and magazines; I read most of the magazines I get from cover to cover).
- Travel 1: I plan to visit my son and his family in Sydney.
- Travel 2: I plan to visit my daughter while she is teaching overseas.
- Exercise: I plan to exercise on average five times a week.
- Weight loss: I plan to lose 12kg this year through exercise and sensible eating.
- Hobby: I plan to go birding at least once a week, taking photos to share on my birding site.
I have many more smaller specific goals, such as cleaning out the garage, cleaning my office, gardening and so on. These are much more detailed plans and I won’t bore you with them here. I like making lists of things to do – and take pleasure in crossing them off when completed.
It looks like it is going to be another busy year.
I’d better plan to have times of relaxation too.
Where is my story going? Some thoughts about plot
A few nights ago I had a restless time in the early hours of the morning. I had been working hard on my children’s novel. I had written 400 words in the hour or so before retiring. This had drained me emotionally and mentally. I took a while to go to sleep; the mind was too active. Several hours later I more or less woke up knowing why I had been struggling with the story.
The story was going nowhere.
Sure-I had a vague idea of some of the plot. I knew the major events that I wanted to incorporate. I roughly knew where it was going and how it would finish. I just basically didn’t know how to get there.
In a flash of inspiration-despite the fog of being only half awake-I knew what the problem was. I hadn’t asked the protagonist some fundamental questions. (Hint from one of my lecturers: if you don’t know where to go next, ‘interview’ your protagonist. Thanks, Claire)
I needed to know the following:
- What does my character need or want above all else?
- What worries my main character? What is he afraid of?
- What or who is stopping my character getting what he wants?
- How will he overcome these obstacles and who can help him?
Once I had a clear understanding of the answers to these questions, plot ideas started to suggest themselves and the story became alive. The main character started to take over and I just had to take a back seat and let him drive the story. It’s exciting when that happens.
Plotters and Pantsers
Writers tend to fall into one of two camps, plotters and pantsers.
Plotters are meticulous planners. Plotters have an idea for a story and then plan, plan, plan. The read and research their theme and topic and revel in their discoveries. They draw up story boards and plan extensive character studies. They fill note books and sticky labels with all kinds of detail. For some of them, the research and planning is far more exciting and satisfying than the actual writing. I would imagine that crime writers in particular need this approach, or there will be too many loose ends at the end of the story. A very real danger in this approach, however, is drowning in a whirlpool of information.
Pantsers are almost the complete opposite. They have a great idea and rush to their keyboard and start typing, often with little regard for planning and really just writing by the seat of their pants-hence the name ‘pantsers’. Plot? What plot? Oh-that will take care of itself as I go along. The big problem with this approach is the brick wall that the writer rushes headlong into after three or four chapters. After the initial flurry of enthusiasm and inspiration, the writer suddenly comes to a screeching halt in front of that wall-what happens next? Often they have no idea where to go with the story. They don’t have a plan. There is no plot.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I tend to be a ‘pantser’, especially with short story writing. With the shortened forms of fiction writing one can afford this luxury. With novels it is crucial to spend more time planning, researching, plotting and doing character outlines and so on. With my current novel I am trying to do more planning and plotting as I can see the benefits of doing so. It doesn’t come easily but I’m trying.
For a good discussion on the pros and cons of these two approaches see:
For more articles in this series go to Writing a Novel – a writer’s journal.
It takes character
To write a short story or novel it takes character. The character of the writer, that is. If the writer has the characteristics of discipline, persistence, patience and a good idea, the story will happen.
But the story also has to have characters. Novels have plenty of them; short stories can get away with one or two, maybe three and not many more.
There are stories where the novel is heavily plot driven. Adventure and stories high in action are like this. In other stories we observe that they are firmly character driven. What motivates the characters? What is their problem?
Australian writer Garry Disher writes: ‘I believe that character is the central element of fiction writing. Characters help fiction writers enter, tell and shape their novels and stories, express ideas and drive and develop plots.’
Over the last few days I’ve been doing some intensive work on the characters in the novel I am writing for my Master of Arts thesis paper. This is even before I have written a single word of my novel. I am getting to know my characters before they appear in the story, even before I start some major plotting work.
Who are the characters in this novel?
Here is a summary of what I have done so far:
- I have decided on who is going to be the main character. This changed early in the planning stages because my secondary character took over my thinking. At first I was focussed on an Australian boy living in rural Nepal. But Adarsh, the Nepali boy, started taking over my thinking. He was demanding to be the focus.
- Who are the secondary characters? These need to be sketched in detail, but not as detailed as my main character. These include the Australian boy Joshua, and the older brother of Adarsh. Two secondary characters is probably enough at this stage, but others may emerge in the writing.
- Then we come to the minor characters, people like the parents of the boys, other siblings and people living in the village.
The next stage in my planning was to ask some key questions. These questions will focus my thinking on various aspects of the people in the story.
- What are the goals and desires of the main character Adarsh?
- What motivates and excites him?
- What does he like and dislike?
- What frightens him?
- What worries does he have?
- What are his dreams?
Then I came across some further ideas in Garry Disher’s book which will head me in the direction of plotting.
- Which characters help Adarsh?
- Which characters hinder Adarsh?
- Which characters influence Adarsh?
It’s all starting to develop nicely in my mind. Even thinking about the characters has thrown up a few plot ideas which might make it into the novel.
I’ll keep you posted in a day or so.
Reference: Disher, G. 2001: Writing Fiction: an introduction to the craft. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Go to the contents page to read more articles in this series.