Sunday, January 22, 2017

Stuck in the Middle? Getting Past the Middle: A Novel Project, Step 2

If you recall, way back before Christmas I challenged myself and you to finish writing the second half of the first draft of a novel by the end of January. I said I was going to check in a couple times a week.

I did not check in.

The first exercise I gave you worked really well for me, and I was busy working on my book. But now we have about a week left and I want to continue with the plan, because I think it’s quite good.
Too busy to blog! (Image: Chris Brown on Flickr.)
This next exercise actually comes from Caroline Leavitt, author of at least 10 novels—so it seems like she
is capable of getting through, more than I have proven.

This is the time for us to get to know the characters of our novel in a way that drives them to act and to move the story along without having to concern ourselves with the “plot.”

Some people are freaking out right now, I know. But remember that we’re working on character-driven novels in this plan. You may have a basic idea of the plot, which is fine, but we’re not planting a plot onto the characters. We already know the story question that the novel will explore and now we are looking at the details of the characters that will allow them to explore the question and move it forward, while also moving the story forward.

So, in October 2016 copy of The Writer that I ran across at the library, Caroline Leavitt ("Portrait of a Modern Novelist") asks us to ask ourselves the following questions about each major characternot just the protagonist!
  1. "What does she want in the beginning? What is at stake if she doesn’t get it?" (There needs to be something major at stake: the love of her family, her self-identity… For more on stakes, check out Chuck Wendig's post, 25 Things to Know About Your Story's Stakes.)
  2. "What happened in her past that makes her have this idea of what she wants?" (Did her mother lose faith in her brother when he made too many mistakes and never seemed to treat him the same again? Was she hard on him, or did the character think she was harder on him than she needed to be?)
  3. "What is her 'ghost'?" (Leavitt describes the ghost as “the thing that haunts you from your past and keeps you from getting what you want. It can be fear—it can be anything.”)
  4. "What is her plan to get what she wants? How does it fail and make things worse?" (It’s as if the more she tries, the worse she makes it. Are you starting to see how this may develop into a plot without the plot being forced on the character?)
  5. "What is her 'Big Doom'?" (This is when everything she can think of has failed, so something else needs to creep in so she can realize she has wanted the wrong thing all along—she needs and wants something else. This way she can look at her life and situation in a new way and see her deeper problems, which we may have been able to see, and then she can finally change things.
  6. "What is her new equilibrium?" (We can think of the novel as starting at a norm that has been going on for a while. By the end of the novel, we establish a new norm that will be kept up for a while. The character gets what she needs for a while, but at some cost.)
  7. "How does it end for this character?" (We are trying to end is some way that is satisfying, but leaves the reader thinking—or maybe filling in what she thinks will happen in the character’s life after the novel ends. Personally, I think this one is difficult to plan out before getting to the end. I’m envious of you if you can do it!)

You’re halfway through your novel, so you should know your characters fairly well. Mapping your answers out to these questions should help you keep moving and create tension between all these characters. Just remember: in every scene from now on, keep what each of your characters wants in mind since, in the middle, they should be fighting for it. That should keep the drama level high and keep you moving toward getting them to the realization of what they truly need.


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