Posts Tagged 'second drafts'

Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

Planning or Pantsing

Rabbit - runI’m updating my website: a slow and laborious process, but I’m getting there. Looking at the ‘writing’ section makes me realise that my writing methods have changed. It’s nice to have those moments in life – a yard stick where you can look back and realise how far you’ve come. I wrote that section 18 months ago, and a few novels on, I’m amazed at just how differently I do things.

I used to be a pantser. I didn’t plot or plan my stories – I used freewriting to muddle my way through a first draft, flying by the seat of my pants. I enjoyed this immensely – the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin at the discovery of a new plot point. I always felt that planning would take this away from me. But in the end it left a mudpit of a manuscript I had to attempt to save in the second draft: characters that were still figuring out who they were, worlds only partly explored, tangled story arcs.

I used to just think this was the way I did things (that it was my ‘style’ of writing), but now I can see that fear was driving it. I was terrified at the thought of planning. What if the ideas didn’t come? What if I sat down to plan and couldn’t think of anything? My inner writing critic (that awful voice that tells you your writing is no good) was strong back then, and could only be silenced when I wrote fast enough to leave it behind. If I stopped to plan, it could paralyse me in an instant. So I was running fast to keep ahead of my fear.

So much has changed. I now trust myself enough that I no longer need to run. After writing so many stories, I know that the ideas will come if I give them time. I trust that I can solve the plot problems that will arise and that the characters will talk to me if I give them space. The biggest epiphany happened about a week ago: I’m now so good at silencing my inner writing critic that he rarely bothers to show up. With my fear now contained to a minimum, I’m free to plan. I love letting the ideas move around my mind for months, asking questions, identifying the plot holes to fill and studying the story arcs. I love prodding the characters to learn their vulnerabilities and determining how the story can best reveal these. I love the intricacies of putting the puzzle together, all before putting pen to paper. I suppose I now understand the demands of ‘story’ more intimately.

Early on in my ASA mentorship, Kate said something that made me think about all this. She commented that you can still experience the thrill of discovery during the first draft when you have planned it. Planning doesn’t take that away, it just makes the process less messy. But I’m still hesitant to describe myself as a planner just yet. I’ve worked out how tricksy this writing process is – just when I think I have myself pinned, I start a fresh project that demands a completely new approach.

So you never know. In a few years time I may be back here saying: “Move over planning, I’m back in the pants”.

Setting and the Tax Man

2009-08-23aI’m constantly amazed at how vividly a place can influence my writing. Its feel, its smell, the lay of the land, the palette of the landscape, the way the wind feels when it pulls at your hair. Every place is unique, which is why setting is so important in books. Setting gives us an immediate insight into the mood of a novel. A strong and tangible sense of what kind of story you’re entering and the characters you might encounter.

2009-08-23bI got to thinking about this recently while on holiday in New Zealand. Driving through the patchwork hills, in a climate so different to our own, the feel of the place vividly conjured the setting and characters from a story of mine. While walking along a river, the characters began to interact in my mind again, commenting on the terrain and noticing things I had not. I had a similar experience last year while in England, and on both trips kept a diary of these observations.

2009-08-23cIn the final two drafts of the junior fantasy novel I worked on during my ASA mentorship, these diaries became invaluable. When first writing this story, I chose a slightly more European setting due to a need for a land with clear seasonal change – harsh winters and long dry summers – a climate as hard as the tribes that drive the plot. In early drafts I focussed more on the characters and their story, but in later drafts I had to work to clarify the setting.

Yet the setting only became vivid and real once I had walked the land of my story. Once I had lived the winter that left only the hardiest plants alive, kicked my feet through muddied puddles of leaves, walked under clouds of ash and ice and marveled at skeletal trees greeting the morning sun.

Do you think Mr Tax Man will scoff when I insist that my ski trip to New Zealand was driven by a need to become intimate with the landscape of my story? And is it shallow to set my next story on an island due to a desire for sand and sun? Caribbean, here I come…

Writing Rhythm

Rabbit - playLike any work, writing has a rhythm to it. It’s finding this rhythm, and becoming comfortable in it, which makes one able to do it each day. But the more I write, the more I discover that different projects have different rhythms, and that moving in and out of these can be tricky.

For example, when writing a picture book, my rhythm is a little choppy. The word count is so small, so the first draft may be written in a single sitting, but then the editing and rewriting and polishing may spread out over months. I can move in and out of working on a picture book several times throughout a day, with small bursts of time spent playing with words, and much more time spent thinking about it all. I frequently move between writing and sketching – when stuck in one area, I move to the other. Doing the final illustrations is different as it’s much more focussed: once it’s all planned out I often spend up to 10 hours a day working on them (it’s very absorbing).

On the other hand, my novel writing rhythm is more smooth. To write that first draft, I need to get in a rhythm where I’m working each morning, uninterrupted, writing an average of 1000-2000 words a day. I have to let the scene unroll in my head before writing it, and it’s easier to get into this rhythm if I do the writing at around the same time each day.  Editing (especially in the re-writing drafts) is similar, where I need dedicated time to do it every day, so the characters are in my head and the story is unfolding and I keep that regular rhythm rolling.

Moving between these rhythms is something I’m still learning about. After completing the mentorship novel I took a month out to work on a picture book, and so developed a much more choppy rhythm to my writing. Now I’ve returned to complete the second draft of a novel of mine, but I’ve lost my novel writing rhythm. I’m no longer used to sitting on the computer for long periods of writing. My mind is still flitting around as it does with picture books. I’m having to force myself to settle, and pin down the characters and make them play nice.

I know I’ll get there. I can feel the muscle memories flexing as I write, stretching them out.  My writing rhythm will settle once more, but it will take time. And patience. And baking (I made some scones yesterday – a sure sign of a bad day). But the sky is clear today.  I am 6000 words in, and already excited about what I may achieve tomorrow.

Character Profiles

Rabbit - playI used to be one of those writers who groaned at such things.  Looking back, I’m not really sure why.  Maybe because at the beginning of my journey I was just enjoying free writing.  Maybe because back then I’d only just written my first novel, so I hadn’t really realised their value.  Maybe because the mentorship has made me more focussed on the intricacies of plot and characterisation and the craft of writing.  Whatever the reason, now I can’t live without them.

Once I’ve sat with my characters through an entire first draft, it’s time to develop their character profile.  This way, in the second draft I know exactly what’s important to them and their story.  Some people would do this before the first draft, and maybe one day I will too (my techniques keep changing as I become more experienced) but for now that would terrify me.  I’d freeze, because I wouldn’t know what to write.  But after the first draft, I do, because I’ve had the freedom of playing with the characters and learning about them through their experiences and decisions.

Kate gave me a wonderful resource sheet I’ve been using, which includes a set of questions you must be able to answer about each character.  Some of the questions are more physical and descriptive in nature, but my favourites are:

  1. Their best qualities / strengths
  2. Their worst qualities / weaknesses
  3. What do they desire most?
  4. What is their greatest fear?
  5. What kind of childhood did they have?  How does that change their character now?
  6. How will they change through your story?  What lessons do they need to learn?

These questions sound simple enough, but when you have these things clear, your characters will suddenly become 3D.  Back story will naturally thread within their current tale, and they’ll begin to interact with each other in new and fascinating ways.  It also makes it much easier to tighten each scene, making every event in the book reveal things about each character; scenes that test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, or a plot where their greatest fear gets in the way of their strongest desire.  These thing can be used to create a character arc across the story where the reader witnesses your characters change and grow.

What has surprised me the most is question number five.  Strangely enough, this isn’t always something people naturally think about.  Yet whenever I do, suddenly my characters make so much sense to me.  Suddenly it’s clear why they’re anxious and constantly finding things to worry about, or why they’re an extrovert always vying for others’ attention, or why they’re a bully.  This is where the character’s back story suddenly comes to life in my mind, which then naturally weaves into the second draft.

Anyone else use character profiles?  Or have interesting questions to add to my list?

Forest or Tree?

Rabbit - lookAre you a big picture person or a details person?  A forest or a tree?  To be a good writer you need to be both, but like with most things, we all have natural preferences.  Things that are more appealing to us, and that we naturally navigate towards.  Of course there is always overlap, but for the sake of this post I’m ignoring grey and presenting only black and white.  So, here’s how I’m defining them:

Ideas:

A Forest loves to daydream, brainstorm and mind-map.  They let their ideas roam free.  And they will not be limited to just the story in front of them – oh no – multi-book series unroll before their eyes.

A Tree gets excited by each individual idea.  They’ll fastidiously unfold each one like an easter egg, careful not to break the foil.  One book at a time, thank-you, and let them plan out the beginning before they even think about the middle or the end.

Characterisation:

A Forest lets their characters appear as they write.  They discover their past, present and future as the story unfolds, and learn about each character based on their actions and choices.  A Forest will say they don’t write their characters – they just run around after them, writing down what they do.

A Tree needs to know everything about their characters before they start writing.  What are their hopes, dreams, ambitions?  They’ll interview them, find images of them in magazines, get to know every intimate detail of their life, including their flossing habits.

Plotting:

A Forest will let the plot unfold.  They will not be limited by detailed plans – no! – they will let the pure ideas pour onto the page as they write.  They trust in the story to write itself.  Plot-holes – bah! – their subconscious will fix such things.

A Tree will have scrapbooks filled with notes on plots and sub-plots and sub-sub-plots.  Detailed story arcs, chapter plans and action graphs are an absolute necessity before even considering starting to write.

Research:

A Forest will scoff – who needs it?  All they need to know is enough to start writing.  Incidental research can be done along the way, and any holes can be filled in later.

A Tree could write essays on the background research they’ve done, fill encyclopaedias with the knowledge they’ve accrued – all before they’ve even written a word.  In fact, many a Tree has become so caught up in their pursuit of knowledge that years can pass before they remember there was a story to be written.

I feel like I’ve just written a set of star signs (Forests are also givers not takers, and Trees’ lucky numbers are 2, 5 and 8).  I think we all naturally tend towards one more than the other.  I am more of a Forest myself.  For some reason the more detailed planning and researching and editing side of writing never appeals to me quite as much, even though I do quite enjoy it when I make myself do it.  The Forest side of me loves daydreaming about new ideas and plunging into first drafts with the thrill of the chase, discovering characters as I go and the surprise of unexpected twists and turns.  However I am able to be a Tree when I need to be, and to write well I need to channel Tree qualities often.  In second drafts I become very organised, with chapter plans and character profiles, and do much more research at this point.  It’s just that I don’t enjoy being a Tree quite as much.  I’m a much more natural Forest.

How about you – are you more comfortably one or the other?  How have you learnt to integrate the other side into your writing habits?

7 Stages of Feedback

Rabbit - climbI’m starting to think the stages we go through after receiving feedback on our work is a lot like the seven stages of grieving. I’ve found feedback to be one of the most valuable ways to develop my craft: to see my writing more objectively and make it the best it can be. However the process of receiving feedback can be a bit challenging and at times even a little painful. Especially if it’s the first time we have sent our ‘baby’ (or manuscript) out into the world, when we are still feeling particularly enamoured by its magnificence.

Reactions to such feedback can look a little like this:

  1. Shock or Disbelief: OMG. Look at all those red marks. Every single comment is negative. They hate it. All of it. Not a single thing can be salvaged from my wreckage of a manuscript. And I thought it was ready to send out. Am I that delusional?
  2. Denial: OK, slow down. Maybe they were just having a bad day. That’s it – their boyfriend broke up with them, and they’re taking it out on my manuscript. Or maybe they’re just not into my genre? Maybe they prefer romance – so how could I expect them to understand my gothic steam-punk YA? They clearly just don’t ‘get’ my writing style.
  3. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I just alter this little part in the story, then my whole meaning will be clearer. Maybe if I make this one chapter then the rest can stay as is. Or maybe if I make this character a bit more likable / assertive / witty / intense / muscly they’ll understand my genius and take their comments back?
  4. Guilt: I can’t believe I sent them this dreck. What on earth made me think it was ready to be read? How could I have wasted their time with such a clichéd, flawed, mud-heap of a manuscript? Oh woe…
  5. Anger: I’m so stupid! In fact, the whole world is stupid. Everyone and everything in it. I hate it all.
  6. Depression: My writing sucks. I’ll never make it in this industry. Why bother? I shall never again burden the world with my atrocious writing, be it novel, blog entry, e-mail or shopping list.
  7. Acceptance and Hope: You know, on rereading their comments, they’re really not so bad. In fact, there are an awful lot of positives in there. Hey, I think they actually like it. Sure, there’s a fair bit to fix, but most of that I sort of knew anyway. This person’s actually quite astute. Their comments are spot on. And, with a bit of time, I reckon I can fix it. It might just be the next Harry Potter after all…

Ok, so maybe I hammed it up a little. I’d hope no one’s reactions are quite that extreme, but it can certainly be a tough process. I find my reactions are heightened if the person giving the feedback is within the industry: ie. agent / editor / respected writer, as opposed to my critique group (who I feel more ‘safe’ with). The quicker you embrace the stages you go through, the faster you’ll move through them. I used to wallow for a good week, but now go through stages 1-6 in the first day, and am at stage 7 overnight and ready to tackle the manuscript afresh.

So, I say embrace your neurosis, let yourself grieve any feedback a little, and then run through the writing fields of your mind wild and free and ready to rewrite.

Writing Blues

Rabbit - angryI’ve read a few posts about the writing blues of late.  There must be something in the air.  Or the water.  Or maybe it’s all this hot weather (or extreme cold if you’re in the northern hemisphere).  Anyway, it made me realise that the last time I blogged about the ever present writing critic (the little guy* that sits on your shoulder telling you your work isn’t good enough), I didn’t talk much about how I battle him.  In fact, I wasn’t really sure how I did until I consciously thought of doing this post.

I realised I have developed a few methods over the past years in fighting the writing critic (which for me are most relevant when writing the first draft):

  1. Hemmingway: Still my most effective method is throwing Hemmingway’s quote at him (which I did talk about last post).  Hemmingway said that ‘All first drafts are shit’.  So when my writing critic starts having a go at me during a first draft, I use this quote to tame him, ie. I tell him it doesn’t matter if the writing is bad, because it’s just a first draft and can be fixed in the next one.  In the second draft I tell him any problems he’s throwing at me can be fixed in the third, and so on.  I find it shuts him up pretty quickly and allows me to keep writing.
  2. Don’t re-read: When I first start working on a draft, I’m always tempted to go back and read what I wrote the previous day.  Problem with this is that it slows me down long enough for my writing critic to start up.  Re-reading can often awaken my self-doubt and make it harder to start up again.  At most I allow myself to read the last paragraph if I need to reorient myself to the scene.  Once I’m a few thousand words into a draft, the urge to re-read disappears anyway, as I become lost in the flow of the story.
  3. Write fast: This technique I learnt in a workshop with Sarah Armstrong.  Free writing is a technique used by many writers, especially in the first draft, and is basically writing fast enough to override conscious thought and is about just getting the words down on the page.  The great side effect is that you also write too fast for the writing critic to catch-up.  Mine doesn’t have a chance to intrude while I’m free writing.
  4. Daydream: This is something I’ve discovered I cannot do without when aiming to write every day.  And the big benefit – it takes away the fear of the blank screen / page.  Each day, before sitting down to write, I need to have let the story and characters roll around in my head.  This is often while at the gym, cleaning, or in the shower.  Times when your body is engaged, but your mind is left to wander.  It doesn’t always happen automatically – sometimes when really busy I have to make myself consciously think about it, otherwise I just end up thinking about the shopping list or the million other things I need to be doing.  Once you have let the next scene unroll in your head, sitting down to write wont be so frightening and the writing critic is less likely to kick in.  I find the characters have already told me what happens next.
  5. Chocolate: Drown him out with chocolate.  Or peanut butter toast.  Or ice-cream if I’m feeling really naughty.  Mint choc-chip, if you must know.  On second thoughts, this might not really help.  It’s sort of a last resort.  But it sure makes me feel better.

The journey of writing can be tough, but it’s also exciting, exhilarating, liberating and wonderful.  I’m forever learning and I bet in a year’s time I’ll be able to add to this list.  No doubt others have different methods of fighting their critic.  Or a favourite guilty snack.  Care to share?

* By the way, any guys reading this: I’m sorry that I refer to my writing critic as a ‘he’ – mine is a he, but not all of them are!  Nor am I making a comment about men!

Like Trying to Wash a Cat

I read a great quote today about editing a novel, which said it can be like trying to wash a cat.  I relate to this, which says a lot considering my cat had an irrational fear of water.  Trying to wash her involved thick rubber gloves, a raincoat and plenty of Betadine for treating scratches – which gives you a clear image of how I sometimes find editing.  Luckily I’ve learnt much through the mentorship, which has made this process more pleasant.  The next stage will be the third draft, which Kate has described as working on structure and ‘making the writing sing’.  Parts of it sing a little already, but more of a bad idol audition rather than the polished rock-star performance I’m hoping for.  Anyway, this got me thinking about how the second draft unfolded.

I was lucky enough to have Kate’s experienced and objective eye to assess my first draft, and together we discussed where to take it from there.  The first thing was to identify the target audience – I was on the cusp of two, so we made decisions about whether to slightly simplify the language / world for a junior audience, or increase the stakes to appeal to a mid-grade audience.  After this we looked at what needed working on.  First up was world building: being a fantasy story, the world presented in my first draft was not detailed enough and I needed to get to know my races better.  For this I did lots of daydreaming, brainstorming and mind mapping, one of which appears below:

2009-01-30a

The next thing I tackled was character consistency: I tend to learn about my characters as I write the first draft, which means they change a lot as I go.  BUT by the end of it I know them quite well.  So I created character profiles for each main character (about 6 all up) which included a number of points about their personality / background, their core strengths and weaknesses, physical traits, and (because I also illustrate) sketches of their face and clothes (which helps with consistent descriptions).  My protagonist’s profile is below:

2009-01-30b

Lastly I did a detailed plot / chapter plan.  One of the most valuable things Kate taught me was a rule for weeding out chapters that aren’t working hard enough.  Every chapter needs to: 1. Propel the plot forward, 2. Develop character, and 3. Reveal more about the world.  I used these rules to write my plan.  Firstly I scrapped any chapters than were ambling along (more than I’d like to admit).  Then I looked at the skeleton I had: what each leftover chapter achieved and what plot points / character traits were not yet explored fully enough.  After this I made headings of every major event in the book in the order it happened and jotted down a summary under each of how the scenes would fulfil the above rules.  I put it all together along a timeline on a pin board (see below), with coloured paper highlighting major plot events.  Yes, I am a very visual person.  And maybe a little anal, but let’s not be judgmental.

2009-01-30c

THEN came the re-write.  I used sections of the first draft, but a lot of it was brand new writing.  The detailed plan made it much less scary and the board made it easy to track my progress, which spurred me on.  This whole process took me just under three months and the manuscript increased by ten thousand words.  Not sure what the third draft will look like, but I’m looking forward to finding out…

 

What Kind of Writer are You?

Rabbit - exclamationSomething that often comes up among writers is the question: ‘What kind of writer are you?’  I used to think the answer was easy – that I had it all figured out.

I was certain I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer.  All this talk of character profiles, careful plotting and chapter plans kind of freaked me out.  The idea of it all felt stifling.  Where’s the freedom?  The sense of the story unfolding before your eyes?  No, I was certain that when it came to first drafts, I was a free writer.  When writing my first few longer stories, all I had was a main character, an idea of what was important to them, a place to start and a vague place to end.  And it was through the writing that the true story evolved – the twists and turns, secondary characters, all the various plot points, and often even I was surprised by what transpired.  It was exhilarating.

But.  Through the mentorship I’ve been doing with Kate, I have learnt something new about myself.  Where my first drafts are free written, it would appear my second drafts are much more planned.  Suddenly I understood the desire for character profiles and chapter mapping.  And instead of restricting me, it was liberating.  Now that I knew the story, I could pin down what needed to happen in each chapter, who needed to be involved, and how to build the tension and develop a strong emotional and action arc.  It made it so much easier to weed out those chapters that weren’t working hard enough and to do a full rewrite (which had previously terrified me).  So, now I had it down.  I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants first drafter, and a planned-anal-organised second drafter.  Yes?  No.

As it so happens, I just finished the first draft of a new novel … and I was a planned first drafter.  This story required a LOT of research, and involved the character solving puzzles along the way, which were vital to the plot.  So I HAD to know what was going to happen at each point.  While there were still some surprising moments during the writing, I mostly knew exactly what was happening and where the story was leading.

So … I have a new theory on this whole ‘what kind of writer are you?’ business.  At least for me, it would seem that where I once thought my personality directed how I approach a story, it is actually each individual story that demands how it is written.  Who knows how I’ll write the next story.  I’m not even game to guess.

So dare I ask: what kind of writer are you?

 


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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