Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Person vs Third Person – Present Tense vs Past Tense

As a reader and a writer, I know that third person past tense is the best approach to writing fiction, but for some reason I felt compelled to mix things up in this novel. I thought it would be intriguing if the chapters that centered on the characters that would become ghosts was set in the past tense, while the chapters that centered around the present day protagonist would be written in present tense. Briefly, I even considered changing the perspective from third person with the ghosts to first person with the protagonist. I thought that by using first person present tense in the protagonist sections of the novel, I would create a sense of immediacy that could be effective with a haunting. All the main action would be happening in the now and the reader would experience the frightening circumstances at the same time as does the protagonist. It sounded reasonable, but I didn’t know how the reader would feel about it. Additionally, I didn’t know if switching the tenses or writing in first person was considered stylistically acceptable in fiction writing.

Acceptable. An odd concept for the creative mind. As artists, do we really want to attach ourselves to what’s acceptable or do we want to expand the boundaries of acceptability, even break through them, and create something completely unique. That’s what Herman Melville did when he wrote Moby Dick. In trying to understand the process of creativity, I took a closer look at Melville’s process of creating.

The now classic author and one of the founding authors of the American literary canon began his career garnering modest success with short novels known as travel logs. They were exotic tales that followed the adventures of some sort of sailor who either traveled to or got stranded on a far away island. The average income reader of the mid 19th century had little opportunity to travel, so they would live vicariously through these travel tales of adventure. When Melville was deciding to write what would become Moby Dick, he was embarking on yet another travel log. When nearly finished with this latest book, his friend and contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, encouraged him to change it. His reason was he recognized Melville’s potential to break down the barriers of the acceptable and create something unique, something that went beyond a step-by-step account of a traveler and delved into the exploration of the human condition. Trusting his friend, Melville went back to the beginning and completely rewrote what he had originally been called The Whale, a simple tale about a sailor on a whaling ship. When finished, he had created the allegorical masterpiece, Moby Dick. He wrote not only in differing tenses throughout the novel, but in differing perspectives, genres, and switched from “fact,” or what was thought to be fact at the time, to fiction. There’s even a section of the book that’s laid out like a stage play. So, you say, if Melville can do it, and to such an extreme, well, so can I! Well, yes, he did do it, but it was an unadulterated failure! It was panned by readers, critics and the public at large. It was such a disaster, it made the sinking of the Pequod a metaphor for his career. His public expected one thing and got another, and they weren’t happy about it. Although he continued to write, he never recovered from the failure of Moby Dick, and instead of making a living as a writer, as he did with his travel logs, he ended up working for the New York Port Authority and when Herman Melville died, the one and only obituary notice in New York spelled his name wrong. True story!

Sure, we’re glad now Melville ruined his career to create his magnum opus, but I’m not certain he was so thrilled about it. He would never know the success of Moby Dick. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that scholars decided to take another look at Moby Dick and with a new more “contemporary” eye, found its brilliance. Unfortunately, Melville died in 1891.

So, what’s the moral of the story? That’s what I pondered for over a week before making my decision and my decision ultimately rested in the answer to this next question. Am I looking for monetary success with this novel, or literary success? Well, both would be nice, but if I had to choose, I would most certainly choose literary success. I’m not being lofty and I can prove it. I’ve been writing for 35 years and I still keep my day job!

Keeping in mind the literary value of the work, I reasoned that using past tense for the ghosts could be effective in defining them as characters of the past, living lives that have already happened. When the reader gets to the protagonist’s present situation and the tense switches over to the present, it could make the action more exciting. To tackle this, however, would take tremendous effort, and that effort would likely be felt in the writing.

To analyze my dilemma further, I decided to think logically instead of creatively. We think in past tense. Our thoughts are reflective. Logically, a novel is most effective when it reads like we think. To force the reader to alter the way he or she thinks would be cumbersome. Do I really want to alter the way a reader thinks when going from page to page through my entire novel? Will the reader be willing to do that? Unlikely. If the act of reading becomes cumbersome, then the words are lost to the style. Style takes precedence over content. In Melville’s situation, his novel was all about style. That was the point, and that’s what makes it work. The novel wasn’t necessarily about a specific plot. Yes, there was a definite plot, several actually, but the main point of the creation was to explore the human condition.

Is that what I am writing, a grand exploration of humanity? NO! I’m writing a fiction story about ghosts. Hardly the place to go crashing down the gates and driving over the well-manicured lawns of acceptable writing styles. I want the reader to focus on the story, not the style of writing. It is the plot of the story that is important, and there is only one tried and true way to get the reader engrossed in the plot, and that’s to write in a style in which they are familiar. But what about the perspective? Should I write Mercy Amoretto’s chapters in the first person while keeping the ghosts in the past?

Well, having blocked out my chapters already, I know that as the novel progresses, most of the chapters become Mercy Amoretto chapters. Therefore, I would essentially be writing the entire second half of the novel in first person perspective. That could be limiting, considering there are other characters at play: her husband, Donovan, and her three children, not to mention her best friend Mary Beth. I would have to relate everything that is happening through the perspective of Mercy. Would that be effective? I think not, mostly because the scary parts of a ghost story often happen when the reader sees something that the main character does not. The scope would be too narrow, less three-dimensional. Plus, switching back and forth would, again, force the reader to change his or her way of thinking throughout the novel. Getting settled into one tense, just to be thrown out and into another one. It could be quite painful, intellectually speaking, and I don’t think I want to torture my reader.

Giving it one final thought, I asked myself, does it really make the novel better to change from the traditional style of writing to something considered unacceptable? The answer again was an unequivocal no!

So, third person past tense it is, all the way through. I’m not caving to convention, ladies and gentlemen. I am simply writing the best novel I can possibly write at this point in my life. If this particular piece works best in the traditional style, then that’s what works best. Period. There’s no need to mess with what works!

Thanks for following along the process. I will come back shortly with my next update on my progress. Until then, happy writing!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Writing is On!

Hello again!

I have now officially begun writing my novel, The Rope, the Tire, and the Tree. After completing the lengthy, yet necessary prep work (refer to my previous post for the details on that), I have written the first pages of my novel.

I already blocked out my chapters, so I already had an idea in mind of how to open the novel. However, once I wrote the first lines of my first chapter, I realized this was not how I wanted to begin the story at all. It just didn’t feel right, and if it doesn’t feel right to the writer, then it won’t feel right to the reader! I did a little research, a lot of pacing, and a whole lot of thinking until I finally realized the problem.

When we think about a story, we think of a series of events that starts here, then goes there, and ends someplace else. So, when we start to write a novel, we often feel a need to begin at the beginning, at that place where the story starts, and that’s exactly what I did. So, why didn’t it work? It didn’t work because, * gulp *, it was boring. In my first post of this blog titled "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story," I talk about this very problem, so I am surprised that I didn’t follow my own advice when blocking out my chapters in the first place. However, I quickly, and thankfully, recognized the error of my ways.

Think about it for a moment. What happens at the beginning of things? Not much. A person or a group of people are sitting or standing around doing mostly mundane things and it isn’t until that extraordinary something happens that the action starts. Why do we feel the need to start with the mundane and work our way into the action? The answer is, we shouldn’t feel that way. If we don’t start at the beginning, then where do we start our story? Answer number two; en medias res, in the middle of things. More specifically, in the middle of the action. The opening lines of your story should directly connect with the core or your plot.

Using the examples from my first post, if you are writing about a college football player who dreams of being a pro, then start the story on the football field. If your story is about a town threatened by deadly forces from outer space, then begin the story with a spacecraft crash landing in the middle of a Midwestern town. If the plot of your novel circles around finding a serial killer who preys on college women with long dark hair, then open your novel with the murder of one of these women. From there you can either flashback or move forward. It’s up to you. Notice that in each example your story is opening with an action. It isn’t a student sitting at his desk in World Geography class dreaming about being a football player, or a Midwestern family gathered around the dinner table in prayer not anticipating any kind of danger to their existence, or the young woman primping to go out for the night hoping someone will buy her a drink. That all may have a place later, but right at the start, jump into the action!

I’m writing a ghost story. So, why did I start the story with the woman who will later be haunted oblivious to that later development and living her somewhat troubled, yet otherwise boring life? I DON’T KNOW!!! After I realized my error by boring myself with my own writing, I knocked myself in the head with my knuckles a few times and started over. And where did I start the second time? With the ghosts, of course! Already dead things in a less than dead space doing spooky ghostly things. Which brings me to another point. Your opening lines, paragraphs, pages and chapter at large, must set the tone for the entire novel. If you are writing a comedy, don’t open the book with a graphic death scene. If you are writing a literary drama, don’t open with Three Stooges slapstick or talking puppies. I’m writing a spooky ghost story, so I open with spooky ghosts.

Another problem solved. I will keep you posted on my progress and obstacles, so stay tuned. Until then, happy writing!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Preparatory Work is Finished. Now on to the Fun Stuff!

Hello Everyone!

I finished all of the pre-writing for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire, and the Tree, and now I am finally embarking on the actual writing of the story. If you have been following my blog, you know what that preparatory work entailed. For a bit of reinforcement, I will briefly recap.

The first, and arguably hardest part of beginning a novel is coming up with an interesting and unique story. In my case, I was pondering an idea for a short story for my compilation of short fiction. The genre of the compilation is supernatural fiction, so I was trying to think of an interesting tale to write that had a supernatural twist. I had completed about six short stories and several poems for the volume, but when thinking of a new story to tackle, I found myself simply rehashing old themes. I was literally starting from scratch. I had to make something out of nothing. For many of us in this position, that seems like an impossible task. What I did to conquer that obstacle was surprisingly simple. Instead of asking myself what story do I want to write, I asked myself what story do I want to READ. Well, I know what I want to read. I want to read a story that has a sympathetic, yet, terribly flawed main character. The flawed heroes are always the most fun and the most relatable. I don’t want gore, but something dramatically supernatural and fundamentally frightening without overwhelming me with horror. I want to explore the “lives” of the supernatural forces and get to know them on an intimate level, just as does the protagonist. I want something classic in nature placed in contemporary times.

As I do with my poetry, I took these somewhat abstract ideas and I tried to find an image to make them concrete. I wanted something I could see. If I can see it, I can write about it. If you’ve ever taken my creative writing workshops, you know that working with concrete imagery is fundamental to great writing. I found the image lingering in the back of my mind. It came from a poem I wrote called An Accidental Meeting that is published in my first volume of poetry. In the poem, I describe an old tire swing. Bingo! That was the image, classic, yet easy to fit into contemporary times. And, of course, I had to attach the supernatural element to that tire swing. Thus, the germ of my story was born.

Next, I developed a plot sentence. What is a plot sentence? Some have called it a cocktail party description. That is what you would say if a friend came up to you at a cocktail party and asked what your story was about. You need one maybe two sentences tops that briefly, precisely, and compellingly explains the main protagonist of your story, her conflict and how the antagonist prevents her from overcoming that conflict; in other words, the plot of your story. So, I had the image of the tire swing and the general idea of the story, now I needed to incorporate a character in order to develop the plot. I picked a main character with whom I could easily connect, a woman in her forties. Well, that’s me. I, however, am rather boring, so, I started with me and expanded outward. I developed a crisis or conflict for the woman, placed her in a situation where that conflict appeared insurmountable, and then entangled into that conflict the supernatural element (antagonists, if you will), which would ultimately bring the story to its climax.

I didn’t want the tire swing itself to be supernatural, but rather to harbor something supernatural, that is, the spirits of lives past. I also didn’t want the spirits to be pure evil, as that would create distance between them and the reader. So, I made the spirits into characters, real people who lived, then died and found themselves trapped in the properties of the tire swing. They are restless, confused, and in need of home. I wanted more than one spirit, because there is power in numbers, but not too many for fear of convoluting the story. Two spirits coming together in one tire swing and a protagonist faced with a crisis that is exacerbated and blown into the stratosphere by the manifestation of these spirits. Aha! A plot sentence is born.

“Mercy Amoretto, in an attempt to mend her nearly destroyed family, decides to clean out the garbage of her life and in doing so discovers an old rope and tire and fashions them together to create a tire swing that she hangs from a maple tree in her back yard only to discover that the connection of the rope, the tire and the tree has released the restless spirits of lives past, spirits that if not cared for, could bring Mercy and her family to eternal ruin.”

OK. That’s a long sentence. I could break it into two, but that’s it in a nutshell, my plot sentence, my cocktail party description of my story. In thinking about my plot, my protagonist and the two spirits, I realized that this was much bigger than a short story. There was a novel here, and so with the birth of my plot sentence came the growth of my novel.

From here, I began developing my characters. I will not go into detail because I have already done that in an earlier blog. But, essentially, I interview my characters by asking them a series of about twenty questions, then I take the answers to those questions and write a page or two narrative. By narrative, I mean I write a “chapter” that essentially describes each character, interweaving each answer into that chapter. For example, instead of simply saying Anastasia is eight years old with blue eyes and blond hair, characteristics that are in my list of answers, I write her description into a narrative. Here is the beginning of that narrative. The numbers represent each of the answers in my questionnaire, and notice I don’t necessarily write the answers into my narrative in the order the questions were asked.

“It’s 1970(4) and eight-year-old(2) Anastasia Madison(1) was riding in the way back of her parent’s 1967 Chevy Chevelle station wagon. There was no seat in the back, just a blanket covering a cold metal floor. Anastasia sat cross-legged facing the rear window daydreaming. The air that swirled through the partially opened window tangled through her long, sleek blond(3) hair, lifting it to fly like the tails of kites behind her.”

By doing this, I am developing Anastasia into a three-dimensional character before I even start writing the novel. I develop a relationship with her. I am thinking about her creatively, not just analytically. Again, I teach this in my creative writing workshops. It’s a fun and invigorating exercise!

Next, I drafted the ending to my story. Yes, the ending. Don’t think your story will tell you where to go as you write it, because it won’t. If you do not have an ending before you start writing, you risk rambling down dozens of digressive dirt roads until you find yourself standing over a massive precipice in where the only way to go is straight down! Figure out where you want to go before you start writing. You can change your mind later, but it’s always best to write knowing your destination! Draft the ending like you draft your plot sentence. WRITE IT DOWN!

Next, I blocked out my chapters. I took index cards and dedicated one index card to each chapter. I started, of course, at the beginning, and one-by-one, I found the heart of each chapter as well as the movement of the story. I asked myself, where do I want to go from here, and then I blocked that out chapter-by-chapter until I reached my already drafted conclusion. The exciting part of this is that I discovered by the time I reached chapter ten that I needed to introduce a new character. I needed a bridge character, someone who would serve to take the main character from here to there in a more realistic and interesting way than what I had originally drafted out. Because I have the chapters on index cards, I simply went to chapter one and wrote down the new character’s introduction on the back of the card. Then at about chapter 15 I realized I needed a stronger connection between Mercy and the spirits, a connection that stemmed from some intimate and devastating occurrence in Mercy’s life that makes her susceptible to the spirits’ influence. So, I introduced some foreshadowing and a subplot on the chapter three index card. THEN, when I reached the climax, I realized I needed a more dimensional and dramatic climax than I had drawn up in my original conclusion. So, I expanded the climax to include this added drama, and incorporated that into the draft of the conclusion I had written earlier. Consider the amount of labor I am avoiding by taking care of all of this now. If I just started writing without any preparatory work, any pre-write, and had written ten whole chapters before realizing I had to go back and introduce a whole new character in chapter one, then I would have to go through the entire ten chapters and make sure that character was accurately and flawlessly incorporated in order for the plot to move smoothly. That is an enormous rewrite that we avoided by doing all of this preliminary drafting and blocking. AMAZING!!

Now here I am. I have my plot, an in depth understanding of my characters, all of my chapters blocked out and my ending drafted. Imagine, having all of this work already done before you even write the first word of your novel! I don’t have to worry about facing that horrible, ugly monster called writer’s block. The hardest of the hard work is over. All of that anticipated badness is alleviated. I no longer have to ask, “Can I do this?” because I’ve already done it. Now I just have to write the story. And that’s the fun part, right??


So, I am at that wonderful point of writing the first line of the first chapter of my novel. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I will go into detail about that in my next blog.
Until then, happy writing and happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Even the Smallest Setbacks are HUGE!

Hi all.

I apologize for not updating my progress in writing my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree. The reason for the delay is I didn't make any progress! Had a minor setback that delayed the writing process for DAYS! If you've read my previous post, you know that I was working on blocking out my chapters on index cards. Well, I got twelve chapters blocked out, then I misplaced my index cards. I highly recommend you do not do this! I searched my home, my car, my little comic book store. I called my mom to see if I left them at her house, I emailed friends and co-workers to see if they'd seen them, all to no avail. I considered just starting over and reblocking them again from chapter one, but the task seemed so daunting that I just didn't do it. I knew that I had come up with some wonderful ideas and blocking strategies, and I feared I wouldn't be able to replicate it. Just when I was about to give up and start from scratch, I found them. Five days later, I discovered them tucked neatly away in a box for a manuscript that I had completed editing and was preparing to bring to my client. I opened the box to make sure the pages were in order and, lo and behold, there they were. That's when I remembered putting them in there so I wouldn't misplace them!! Oh, the irony!

So, I am now finishing blocking out my chapters, and I was right, there were ideas jotted down that I don't think I would have been able to draw up again. But, I have to say, it is possible that I could have reblocked the chapters and gone in a better direction than where I was headed. I have done that before. When I was in the beginning stages of writing my one-act play, Rain in 1996, I was working on a clunker of a computer that kept crashing. I tried to back up everything as I went, but I found myself one day on such a fantastic run that I neglected to back up what I had written in a timely manner, and the computer, of course, crashed. I cried for about two solid hours. Then, the next day I went to work rewriting. My mind had cleared and I was determined to write as if nothing had happened. As a result, I believe what I wrote was far superior than what I had drafted the day before. Subsequently, the play was acknowledged by Writer's Digest in 1997 as one of the top twenty best written plays, and it was later published in my second book, Rain - Dark as Water in Winter.

I suppose the moral of this story is, it is important to have a system that is organized and efficient in order for the writing process to go smoothly. However, we are mere human beings, and mishaps will happen. When they do, don't let it stop you as it did me. It would probably have been a good exercise to begin reblocking the chapters even with the hope that I would come across the index cards eventually. When I did find them, I could have compared notes between the two, and I probably would have discovered some interesting gems from the new endeavor that I could have added to the original version. I do believe my frustration over misplacing my index cards delayed the creative process and I did myself a grave disservice but stopping in my tracks. Leason learned!

Onward and upward! It shouldn't take me long now to finish blocking out my chapters. Once I am done, I will move on to actually writing the first lines of the first chapter of my novel. Thank you for your patience everyone. I'll be back soon. Until then, happy writing!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Blocking Out My Chapters

Hello friends,

At this point in writing my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I have written my plot sentence, named and outlined my main characters and drafted my ending. Now I want to block out my chapters. Just like everything else in writing, not all writers do this. Some have a plot and characters, a beginning and an end, and then they fill in the rest as they go. I like to block out my chapters in advance for the same reason I draft my ending before I start writing the story; it gives me a path on which to travel. Certainly I will stray from that path from time to time, or even decidedly hop on to a new path all together, but having a direction in which to go makes the process not only easier, but in my humble opinion, much more fun!

I begin blocking my chapters by getting a box of index cards. Each card represents a single chapter. In the case of this story, I have a box of multicolored index cards. Because my three main characters are each from a different time period, I assign each character a color so at a glance I know on which character I am focusing. All of the characters will connect at some point, but in the beginning of the novel they are separate. When they come together, I will assign a different color card to denote that they are written together within one chapter.

Because I am working with three distinct main characters, I must be very careful not to overwork one character or chapter at the sake of another. Likewise, I must not jump around from each character too frenetically, potentially making the reader dizzy. I need to create an even flow between the chapters, connecting them on a literary level even before they come together. This is where my poetic skills come in handy. I make mention of the importance of understanding poetry writing at the end of my blog post titled "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story." I also teach this in my creative writing workshops. A poem is an immediate experience, filled with rich imagery and tangible emotion. Each word is precisely chosen to fullfill the essence of the poem. That is what I need to concentrate on when connecting the characters from chapter to chapter. Through carefully chosen language and narrative I want to create a sense of the presence of the characters in each chapter without always placing them there. For example, while in the midst of a game of hide and seek with her brother, Anastasia hides high in the branches of an old maple tree in her back yard. In her seclusion, her mind wanders and she daydreams of a young boy shining shoes on the streets of New York a century ago. She doesn't know how the daydream was inspired, but finds it intriguing. Two chapters later, young Walker Jacobs is sitting under a maple tree reading Ragged Dick, a Horatio Alger tale of a young shoeshine boy working the streets of New York in the 1860s. The two young people, Anastasia and Wallker, living a half century apart, share a connection with the tree and the book but have yet to realize it.

Now, I haven't actually written that scene yet, but I made note on the index card of Anna hiding among the branches with the image of Ragged Dick in her head. I know from this brief description where I want to go with it, and it will serve to point me in that direction when I get to physically writing chapter seven.

The above example is the exact reason for blocking out the chapters on index cards. As we write we come up with wonderful ideas about what we want to write about later in the novel, but we have a ways to go before we get there. We take a terrible risk of losing that nugget if we don't block it out now. So, I jot down on each index card an outline of the main arc of each chapter. What is it that I want to happen here? What is the main focus, plot movement, obstacle, etc. of this chapter? If I can answer that now, then my job becomes immensely easier later on. Also, by blocking the chapters on index cards, I can review them and move them around. What works in succession now, may not work as well in that order as I get deeper into the writing process. I can tape the cards around the computer so I can see where I've been and where I'm going, or keep them in a neat stack and go through them one by one. It depends on where I am in the writing process that day.

I hope this was helpful. When I finish blocking my chapters I will come back to you with more insight into this wonderful endeavor. Until then, happy writing!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Moving Forward with my New Novel!

Hi everyone!

I am moving forward with the next step of outlining my new novel. First, however, I just want to comment on the naming of one of my characters. A dear friend and wonderful writer, Priscilla, pointed out to me that Walker's last name, Conrad, rang reminiscent of Joseph Conrad the author of HEART OF DARKNESS. I hadn't thought of that, and was quite grateful for the insight. I definitely do not want readers associating Walker with Joseph Conrad. That's akin to having him named after Thomas Nelson Page! She also pointed out that Jacobs as a last name for Walker was not only appropriate on an ethnic level, but also on a character level. It sounded perfect to her, as it initially did for me. I had changed it thinking of the name in a biblical sense and having a strong Jewish relationship. However, she graciously told me that the name crossed ethnic lines and was fitting for black Americans as well. So my young man has returned to being named Walker Jacobs. I'm glad and so is Walker :)

So, moving ahead. I have my plot sentence and my characters named and outlined. Now I want to draft my ending. Yes, that's right. Before I even start writing my story, I must outline the ending. Writers approach a novel in different ways. Some do as I am doing and outline everything before we begin. Others begin and let the story "tell" them where to go. There is no right approach, although from experience, I can say not knowing where the story is going to lead often makes for frustrating writing sessions and even that horrible little devil, writer's block! Having an ending before I begin gives me somewhere to go. That doesn't mean I won't change the ending if the novel leads me in another direction, but, trust me, it works to have it outlined in advance.

I remember reading a horror novel by one of my favorite authors and anticipating a great conclusion only to have it end with a giant spider. Sounds creepy, but it was really anticlimactic. I felt in my gut that the ending came because he couldn't figure any other way out. No one wants their readers to feel that way, especially when you have invested so much sweat, time and tears into your project.

So, I am off to outline my ending, which, of course, I am NOT going to post here! I shall return when I reach the next phase of writing my novel. Until then, happy writing!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making Changes that Help the Writing Process

Hello there,

In drafting my plot sentence for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I realized that my three main characters were inappropriately named. Writers give their characters names for many reasons. Sometimes they are named after real people they've known who possess the ideology of their characters. Sometimes they are given names that hold actual meaning to the characters' personalities. Sometimes they are given names simply because they sound good.

When I originally named my characters, Walker Abbey, Karen Madison, and Felicia "Filly" Orlando, I did so by combining all of the above reasons. But, I didn't feel entirely comfortable with any of their names overall. I chose the names too quickly. So, I asked myself the question, "How important are the names of not only the main characters, but all the characters in my story?" The answer was simple and came swiftly. Vitally important!

In a novel, or any fiction piece, there is very little time allowed to get the reader "acquainted" with our characters. The reader must have an immediate (desired) response to them, and what is more immediate than your character's name. Additionally, I can't accurately write about my characters if I don't associate with them on the most basic of levels. I needed to create names that held meaning to their personalities, "sounded" good to the inner ear, and made an immediate impact on the reader.

I started with Walker Abbey, a black teenager living in 1925's rural Connecticut. His first name was chosen because the character is a mover in his mind. A self-taught reader, he sees a future out of his life of poverty and oppression. The name Walker gave a sense of movement, of walking toward something and away from something else. I loved the name when I chose it and still do. However, Abbey was simply chosen because I thought it sounded good at the time. It held no meaning, however, and I feel now it is too soft for such a strong character. I changed it to Jacobs, which I liked better. The hard "c" and "b" sounds resounded with his first name. But Jacobs has an intrinsic ethnicity to it that doesn't apply to Walker. Instead of relying purely on sound, I then researched names that meant "strong" and finally found Conrad. It was perfect. Walker Conrad, a strong name for a strong boy eager to move up and out of his life of hardship.

Next, I addressed Karen Madison, an eight-year-old white girl living in what has become the northern Connecticut suburbs in 1970. I wanted her to be an all-American girl; blond, blue-eyed, precocious and adorable. I picked Madison as a last name because it has that Mayflower, all-American feel to it. When we think of the early founders of our country, James Madison, our fourth president, comes to mind. The name also works as a pretty first name for girls, so I liked her having a last name that was reflective of a pretty first name. So, Madison was perfect. Karen, however, I chose by researching popular fist names for girls in the 1960's (when she was born). Karen was a clear winner and also the name of a friend of mine in the 1960's, but after saying the name again and again, it just wasn't beautiful enough. I needed the reader to instantly fall in love with this little girl. She had to grab their hearts. She also has an everlasting quality about her. No matter what happens to her, she will be eternally remembered as that perfect little girl. In my research, I found the name Anastasia. It's a Greek name that means resurrection and springtime. Youthful and eternal, lovely and classic. Called Anna by her brother, which means grace and also is classic in nature, the name embraced everything about this character. So, she is now Anastasia (Anna) Madison.

Felicia "Filly" Orlando, my a current-day wife and mother who is fruitlessly trying to mend her troubled family in comfortable Enfield, CT was my hardest challenge. Her name was wrong on both ends. I wanted her to have a name that wasn't too common but not too abstract. I initially named her Summer Hopewell. The last name was chosen for it's hopeful quality. Even though this woman is partly responsible for the troubles in her family, she is not a bad person and I wanted the reader to be sympathetic to her and see hope in her future. But Hopewell was too obvious and sounded forced. Summer was for the pure sound quality of it and didn't match her personality. I then chose Felicia because it sounded more mature, but I softened it by giving her the nickname "Filly." Orlando was chosen because I decided I wanted her to be married to an Italian man. As someone who was raised in a mixed-Italian/Canadian household, I am very familiar with the tensions and family dynamics of these strong ethnic personalities. I knew I had to relate to this woman on a personal level in order to write about her accurately, so I was certain she should be not Italian herself, but married to an Italian man. But, again, after saying the name out loud a few time, Felicia sounded too mature, and Filly too silly, if you will. And Orlando reminded me too much of Florida or Tony Orlando, so I threw the name away entirely and started over. Third times a charm. After extensive research I decided upon Mercy as a first name; pretty and sympathetic, with a hint of sorrow and just unique enough to be appealing. Amoretto became her last name. It has that wonderful Italian flavor, beginning and ending in a vowel, it's lovely to the ear, and it means "love." Because she is the most central character and the plot centers around the concept of love, the name - Mercy Amoretto - was ideal!

So, there you have it. The long process of naming my three main characters is complete. You may ask, "Is it worth it, taking so much time and energy for just a name?" Absolutely. Will the reader know all the details of the meanings of the names without the lengthy explanation that I provided here? Maybe, maybe not. But even the most subtle or subconscious awareness of their meaning is priceless. Furthermore, as the writer of these characters, I must have an absolute understanding of them from the inside out in order to maintain focus and accurately depict their character traits throughout their creation.

Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it helps you in the process of your own writing. I will return upon completing the next phase of my novel. Until then, happy writing!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Next Step in Drafting My Novel

Hi again,

I have completed drafting the character outline for my three main characters in my novel, tentatively titled The Rope, the Tire and the Tree. These are preliminary outlines that I will use as a guide and refer to as I flesh out the characters throughout the writing process. Some or all of the characteristics I've drafted may change throughout the process. That is natural, and even "healthy" as the characters become more three-dimensional. But the outline will serve as a guide in starting the process. As I stated in my earlier blog, I used a formula I found on drafted by a man named Jacob. I expanded Jacob's formula by writing my outline in a narrative style, rather than just Q&A. That helped me get a more three dimensional feel for the characters.

Additionally, I have included in this outline the pivotal moment of the characters' lives, or deaths in some cases, that are critical to the plot of the story.

The next step I will take in drafting my novel is to define the plot of the story. I will do that by drafting a "plot sentence." I have discussed the process of writing a plot sentence in an earlier blog titled, "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story." In that blog I suggest starting the process with drafting a plot sentence before outlining the characters, but it can work both ways. Sometimes we think of great characters first and want to write a story around them. Other times we think of the conflict or "plot" first and so we develop characters to bring that plot to life.

Although my earlier blog incoroporates other tools in beginning the writing process, I encourage you to review the section that outlines how to go about drafting a plot sentence.

Goodbye for now. I will return when I reach the next stage of drafting my novel. Until then, happy writing!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Beginning Stages of Character Development in Fiction Writing

Hello all,

I am working on the beginning stages of character development for a new novel I am drafting, tentatively titled THE ROPE, THE TIRE, AND THE TREE. There are three main characters; Walker Abbey, a black teenager living in 1925's rural Connecticut, Karen Madison, an eight-year-old white girl living in what has become the northern Connecticut suburbs in 1970, and Felicia "Filly" Orlando, a current-day wife and mother fruitlessly trying to mend her troubled family in comfortable Enfield, CT.

I am using a formula I found on and it was drafted by a man named Jacob. In this formula, Jacob asks us to pose several questions regarding the character. Some of the questions are, "What is your characters eye color, height, weight, favorite color, age, name, hobbies..."

The formula appears on the surface to be rather simple, even rudimentary, but I chose to take a narrative approach to answering these questions and in doing so, found it to be extremely exciting. Instead of just answering "blue, 6 feet, 190 pounds," etc., I wrote out the answers as if I were drafting a chapter in my novel. Limiting my narrative to one page, I was able to get a concise, yet three-dimensional outline of my character that I didn't think possible so early in the process.

I am very comfortable with this approach, and grateful to Jacob for the formula. I will be teaching this formula in detail, along with other elements of creative writing in my upcoming workshop at the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT. Please visit my web site, for details on the workshop and email me if you would like to register.

As I continue to develop the story, I will let you know what techniques I've learned to make the writing process more exciting and productive. I will also keep you updated on the progress of the story itself. Stay with me as I take you through the various steps of drafting a full-length novel!

If you have questions or would like to post your own insights on fiction writing, please feel free to respond to this blog. I look forward to hearing from you!
Happy writing!