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!