Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Using character autobiography to discover plot

My character-driven novel has resisted plotting. Experts who specialize in plotting have thrown up their hands and told me it may not be publishable. Others have suggested an infusion of gunshots or perhaps a car chase.

As I told a friend in a whining e-mail, "The other thing I learned from [unnamed experts] -- which is probably more important than anything they knew they were teaching -- is that it doesn't matter what the experts say. It's the process of telling my story that makes me qualified to tell it. And no matter what I've learned from all my teachers, there comes a time to forget the lessons and ride the wave."

Well, that wave tends to crest and trough, and even a character-driven novel needs a plot. The problem is finding it. The problem, as the unnamed expert pointed out, is to find a destination more concrete than the much-too-nebulous "comes to terms with" or "discovers."

But in a character-driven novel, that outline comes from character development, from beginning to end. Plot points will be physical manifestations of changes in the psyche.

So I've begun a long autobiography of my protagonist, and the milestones begin to emerge from the fog. It's not a plot, but it's the landscape where I'll build my road of a plot.

And the gunshots still are limited to the inciting incident.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fictional snooping

Here's something I learned from Jurgen Wolff, writing coach and author of various books on motivation, goal setting, and writing. He's also an NLP practitioner, and this little exercise is a way to bring to conscious knowledge a fuller picture of a fictional character or situation.

Get comfortable somewhere where you won't be disturbed, which could include a city bus, park bench, airport. It's not dangerous or embarrassing or anything, but you might look like you're dozing, and if you want to work on your book, you won't necessarily want to have a conversation right then.

Then close your eyes, or leave them open, and relax your extremities. Focus on your hands, feet, arms, legs, and tell the muscles to relax.

Now, think about your character's house. There's nobody home, and you've been given permission to go and browse through and explore as much as you want. You'll be looking for an object of importance to the character that will tell you something about that character.

As you walk in the front door, look around, observe the furniture, wall hangings, state of order or messiness. Go from room to room through the dwelling, seeing what you see, considering what noises you might hear, smells you might smell. Find the object. It could be a book or a photograph or anything. When you've examined the object, put it back where you found it and leave.

There are a million variations. It could be the character's cubicle at work, his car, her dorm room, her garden. What you see will tell you about these people in places where your conscious mind might be inclined to force something foreign onto them and move on, causing the characters to be shallow or unconvincing.

My husband and I were camping in a yurt at an Oregon state park last summer and I noted that there was WiFi. I thought it would be a great place to write, and as we walked around the park I surveyed the writing space of an imaginary writer using a yurt for a writing vacation. I saw books spread out on the coffee table, coffee mug, computer, printer, stack of manuscript pages. When I turned over the pages, I found a novel in progress about an eastern Oregon cowgirl who went to medical school at the University of Chicago. Sounds like an interesting story. Somebody ought to write it.

With practice it gets easier to find that state of waking dream where fictional people walk and act and make choices that surprise even their creators.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

My first audio drama

I just finished up the second draft of my first audio drama. It's been quite the project, and although it's getting closer to where I want it to be, I know it's not there yet. But it's been an incredibly fun project and a good change of pace from the novel, which is on hiatus, but not back-burnered.

Here's what I've learned about writing audio drama so far.

First, here's one handy link with everything you want to know about audio drama and then some: The Well Tempered Audio Dramatist.

Second, I needed to have a fundamental overview of the story beforehand. In writing prose, it's easier to just follow the words to see where they lead. For some reason, though, and I can think of several possibilities, I couldn't just start writing a scene and see what the people said. Maybe it was because I'm not familiar enough with the form and format to stop concentrating on that and follow the story. Maybe it's just my approach. Maybe it's this story.

This story started with a challenge from Willamette Radio Workshop to come up with a 15-minute audio drama in some way inspired by the "St. James Infirmary Blues" for a Halloween anthology production. I thought, that sounds like fun. Too bad I don't have any ideas. And then I got the idea, and that song ran through my head for a few days until I got the bones of the story. Then it disappeared.

And the story -- well, we'll see what comes of the story.

The third thing I learned is that you use sounds to reinforce mood. Well, duh, you say. You're writing audio drama. But my approach was to start with dialogue -- which I suppose is as good a place as any. But when a perceptive critiquer pointed out a two-word phrase that summarized each scene, it gave me the ambient mood of each scene, and then I knew what might happen to build that mood aside from the dialogue.

So happy, victorious, on-top-of-the-world (and the whole play is set in a bar over a period of several weeks) is a baseball game with the home team winning in the bottom of the ninth. And the music I listened to as I wrote the scenes becomes suggestions for the kind of music backing them in the production. Oddly, St. James Infirmary Blues wasn't one of them, but mostly Duke Ellington with a little bit of Django Reinhold and Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane thrown in.

Basic, yeah. But it's a start.