Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Characters as Works in Progress

by Stephanie Black

A big thank you to everyone who suggested titles for my work-in-progress! I really appreciate all the suggestions, both serious and funny. The winner of the drawing, chosen by random number generator, is . . . Linda! Congratulations, Linda! Send your snail mail address to and let me know which of my books you’d like (here’s a link to my website where you can read about the books). Now for the working title: I have decided to use the title suggested by Anon #1: Rearview Mirror. It fits the story on a number of levels: the car accident, the way trouble from the past keeps haunting the heroine, and the heroine’s difficulty in looking forward instead of backward. So, thank you, Anon! If you don’t mind identifying yourself, email me and let me know what book you want.

In last week’s blog I talked about some of the things I needed to fix in my next draft, such as Stupid Heroine Syndrome and thin characterization. Yesterday, I got an email from a friend in which he commented that my blog about my second draft had intrigued him. “I had assumed one would have to have that sort of thing fixed up by the 2nd draft,” he said (he’s currently working on his first novel, and thus was curious about how I operated). Yes, I can see how you'd think I’d have all that worked out—I mean, what kind of crud-fests are my early drafts anyway?—but I don’t. It takes me a while to get everything about the story and characters developed and finalized. I can’t write a book without multiple drafts, developing the story and characters as I go. That’s how my brain works.

Writers can be very different in how they work. A method that is effective for one writer might drive another writer bananas or shut down his creativity altogether. I suspect that my multi-draft find-the-story-and-characters-by-writing-them method would drive a very organized writer insane. It would also unhinge a writer who hates revision and wants the first draft clean enough that revision is minimal. But, for me, it works and it lets my creativity flow. Plus, I don’t mind revision. I love revision. I would go insane if I had to have every detail of the story and characters planned before I wrote it. In fact, I don’t think I could write a successful novel that way at all. I'd never be able to think up all those facets of plot and character before I had the story itself to spark my creativity. On the flip side, I do need a rough outline and some info about the characters to get me started—I can’t comprehend the method of just sitting down to see where your characters lead you. How in the world do you even know what to write? I’d be stumped. But my outline is just a jumping-off point—boy is it ever just a jumping-off point; I just went back to glance at my outline for this novel and good grief, I really changed the plot. I wonder if I have another outline in a different file?). Anyway, my point is that as a writer, you find what works for you. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.

I read through the second draft of my WIP and ended up with two and a half pages of scrawled notes. Here are few examples (with names changed to protect the guilty):

What happened at Sally and Joe’s last meeting? (backstory issue)

Sally needs to obsess less over Mary and Bob (character issue)

Joe’s dialogue needs to be classier/formal (character issue)

Seems like Lisa needs a reason, beyond Barbara’s words, to suspect S and J—she knows Barbara is a nut (backstory issue)

Pull back on Sally’s realization that she’s in love with Bob—don’t bring it on too soon (plot/character issue).

Kelly’s mother is a caricature—need to round her out (character issue)

So yes, plenty of character and backstory issues, among other things. I much prefer having a draft to work with and draw upon for ideas, as opposed to trying to create something out of the air. For example: one issue right now is that the hero is too good. He needs some flaws. At one point in the story, it becomes important to the plot that the hero loses his cell phone. Hmm. Maybe there’s the seed of a potential flaw here? Maybe he’s disorganized or absentminded? Maybe, maybe not, but the plot provides a possibility for character rounding. Here’s another example of the way character development can spring from plot needs: I want the heroine to stay in her home, even after some things happen that might make someone else run for the hills. Therefore, I need to make it logical that she would stay. How can I make this work? Maybe that home is very important to her. Does it represent her independence, her psychological health, her ability to care for herself, her safe haven? How she feels about her home could form an interesting facet of her character, giving her depth. I started bringing out that character trait at the end of the second draft, but if I want it to work, I need to thread it through the story. I love it when character and plot intertwine like that, and the needs of the plot spark ideas for adding another layer to a character. Plot can push me to deepen a character to make the story credible--for instance, the troubled ex-boyfriend isn't much of a prize right now. His character needs to be rounded by the addition of appealing traits so the reader can understand why the heroine once thought she was in love with him.

How about you? Are your second drafts pretty much submission-ready? Or, like me, do you need more time to develop the layers and threads of your story before you hand it to your test-readers or editor?


At 9/29/2010 6:00 PM, Blogger T.J. said...

2nd drafts being submission-ready? Bah! My 20th drafts don't seem submission-ready. One day. One day.

At 9/29/2010 6:59 PM, Anonymous Jordan said...

Stephanie, I love this post! Every time I read one of your novels, I want to know more about your process. You weave these things in so well that your characters come off well rounded and well motivated.

Like T.J., I'm still working on submission ready, LOL. My latest file is labeled "draft 12," but I basically just change the number when I feel like it, am about to make a really huge change, or start another round of revisions, but not consistently.

At 9/30/2010 12:05 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thank you so much, Jordan! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

TJ and Jordan, I can totally relate. My first novel went through so many drafts that I lost count.

At 9/30/2010 9:48 AM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

I'm with you, Stephanie. First draft and second drafts are a slogfest (the only fun part being the unexpected turns characters take). Revision and final drafting are most enjoyable because I can FEEL the story getting better with each work session, and by then I'm so familiar with the story and characters that it's easy to make little tweeks that end up being major improvements.

At 9/30/2010 12:43 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

I love that feeling when you can see the story improving, growing richer and deeper! Thanks, Michael.

At 10/07/2010 1:12 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

This was fun to read about your process. 2nd draft is definitely not ready! I also like to go through my ms and continue to flesh out and polish things. I think by about my 4th or 5th draft, I'm ready to send it to critique group but from there it will be another 3 or 4 drafts before submission.


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