I don’t even know these people

Last week I gave another friend my “elevator pitch” about the novel and the historical characters on whom I’m basing my story. While most people express surprise at how strange and unlikely the reality was, she asked a question that I’d not heard before:

“Do you like any of your characters?”

It’s a good one, especially considering that part of what made me want to write this story is that none of the people involved seemed like they’d be overly pleasant to deal with, even before taking fictional liberties. As it stands now my protagonist is an unstable con man, the man he is conning is pious and obsessive, the pious man’s wife is an angry control freak, and the con-man’s wife is shaping up to be timid and naive.

As such, these people are lots of fun to write (because happy, stable characters are boring), but I can’t say I’d want to hang out with any of them!

Having said this, I have compassion for them as well: the con man gets in way over his head, the pious man’s needs drive him to compromise his principles, the control freak is lonely and frustrated, and the milquetoast may well be the sanest person in the room.

I suppose it’s good that I appreciate their strengths as well as their weaknesses. After all, if readers unconsciously emulate their favorite fictional characters, imagine what it’s like for those of us who write them.

My mixed emotions also come from the fact that all of the characters embody aspects of myself, and not always my best points. I suppose this is inevitable because the only head I’ve ever been in is my own. I’ve been obsessive, angry, questioning, and out of my depth; incredibly I’ve even been the sanest person in the room at times. While this may not make my characters pleasant, I hope it makes them relatable.

And they continue to take shape as I write them. Just this week I wrote one making a gaffe that embarrasses another and I’m still not sure how their different personalities are going to deal with the aftermath. I just keep referring back to my character profiles for cues and hope that something believable comes out in the narrative wash.

In short – do I like them? Sorta and not, but honestly I’m still getting to know them.

coming up to speed

On Thursday I went to my first local writer’s meet up.

This is different from my occasional Sunday writing get-togethers with friends, where the goal is simply to write. The  members of this group largely work alone but meet bi-monthly to critique each other’s work and do writing prompts.

It was interesting, but I felt inadequate to the task. I’ve got a bit of a learning curve if I want to offer decent beta reading, or learn from any criticism I receive:

1) I need to get familiar with the proper names for different parts of language. I know when something feels “off” to me in a reading: the pace is too fast, or it feels repetitive, but I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately explain what I mean. Until I understand these my critiques will be vague at best. Not sure where to learn this as I’m not even sure what to plug into Google: “parts of language” finds more about speech than writing. Work in progress.

2) I need to learn proofreader’s marks. Some of the members provide their reviews as marked-up printouts, and these aren’t useful to me if I don’t know what they mean.

3) Better reading aloud. I put as much expression as I could into the small bit I read but self-consciousness and unfamiliarity with the text gets in the way. I’m referring to Mary Robinette Kowal‘s tips for reading aloud videos (part 1, part 2) but I suspect mastering this will come down to practice. I may have to face my speaking in public phobia sooner rather than later (shudder).

4) Formatting. Evidently some publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that isn’t in the preferred justified alignment, .5″ paragraph indent format. I’m new enough to the writing party that I can’t judge anecdote from evidence, but reformatting is simple so I’m putting this in my “can’t hurt, might help” box.

The writing prompt was fun: start a story, after a set time pass your paper to the person on your right so they can continue. It’s like the RPGs I used to play in, where everyone had permission to write everyone else’s character and take them in places I couldn’t imagine.

I think I will be attending this meet up again as time permits, but only if I can be of some use to the other members.

 

short circuit

I am easily distracted. There, I said it.

This is a big problem when I’m trying to buckle down and produce prose because writing is such a motionless, solitary activity that almost anything becomes more appealing if the muse doesn’t strike instantly: getting a drink, tidying my workspace, surfing the internet…

Ah yes, the internet. It’s a fantastic research tool but also a diabolical time suck that people made of sterner stuff might be able to tune out, but given the opportunity I will click through useful information to trivial amusing junk Every. Damn. Time.

The solution is obviously to turn it off, and working away from my local wireless does help but I like the convenience of working from home. By sheer luck I was reading an interview with author Malinda Lo in which she revealed that she had the same problem and provided her solution for it.

Mac Freedom is a tidy little app that does only one thing: it cuts off internet access without having to cut the connection, in time intervals up to 8 hours. No web, and no email notifications either.

I’ve been using it all week and was finally able to get a difficult scene written because I turned off interference. This isn’t an ad – I’m just a satisfied customer.

What’s your worse writing distraction, and how do you handle it?

reticence

There are times when I find it uncomfortable to write.

I don’t mean physical discomfort or run-of-the-mill writer’s block, but a sort of anxious distress that has me doing everything from laundry to reloading Facebook to avoid having to face the work in progress.

What I always want (what I suspect all writers want) is that perfect state of flow where the words just pour out like water, the imagery and emotions so clear in my mind that I am merely describing the unfolding events and the character’s reactions to them.

For a long time I assumed “real” writers were in that state all the time; through discussion and experience I’m learning that this is definitely NOT the case and that part of learning to write is plowing through the times when you’re not “in the mood”.

I’m finding that the two main things that make me want to flee to the cuddly vapidity of YouTube cat videos are 1) I can’t get inside my character’s head, or 2) I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Dealing with the first is easier – I created elaborate back stories and personality profiles of my main characters that I can refer to when I just can’t “go there”. It’s not the same but it does give me some direction when I’ve written them into a corner.

The other is harder because even though everyone says to “write what you know” it’s impossible to stick to my own narrow range of experiences and inevitably I wind up in uncharted territory.

This is especially true with historical fiction, and even though none of my potential readers have lived through the 16th century either I still cringe at the thought that someone who has done better research than I will read something I’ve written and realize I’m winging it.

This is my critiquing Kryptonite – I’m more self-conscious about someone catching me being clueless than I am about lousy grammar, poor plotting or anything else.

Of course I’m (over)doing the research to avoid that possibility, but I suspect the real lesson is how to get over my flailing and find a way into “the zone”. I know what to do once I’m there – it’s just the getting there I’m struggling with.