CRAFT: Jumpstart

While I’m waiting for the call to come pick up Mama from the hospital (keep hoping it comes today, though, because they’re still doing blood work every hour and graphing her kidney function and hemoglobin and other Sekrit Stats), I thought I’d blather about ways to jumpstart your novel or story.

First, let’s squeak about characters. Characters make your story, as far as I am concerned. It used to be that way for most readers, but nowadays it looks to me as if plot has become the all-reaching concern. Still, once upon a time people would close a book and say, “Wow, that Scarlett!” or “That wimp Ashley!” or “I never knew a man like Rhett Butler.” It would be nice if someone wanted to write a fan sequel to your book because he or she didn’t want to let go of the characters, wouldn’t it? That’s what fan fiction is, sort of.

So how do you make an impression with your characters? They have to live for you first, IMHO. In most cases, my novels begin with a character standing there blinking into the sunshine or twilight or flourescent bay of offices, thinking about her or his predicament. Well, that’s not exactly precisely true: they BEGIN with a LINE. The LINE comes to me, and it usually connects and pours forth more. But as I type the LINES, the lead character forms and starts blinking into the sunset, wondering what the hell all that white paper with funny letters on it could possibly represent.

What if you don’t have that experience with characters? Or you’re in a hurry, such as on a deadline for a contest or (be still our hearts) an agent/editor? Such exalted beings want to see your work? Oyoyoy! Here’s a way I’ve used to jumpstart a novel. I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but who’s going to search the archives?

Cast the story! When I wanted IN THE PUNDIT’S CORNER to get started quickly, I knew the character types I was after. In fact, I approached it as a new Tracy-Hepburn screwball comedy with a touch of “North by Northwest” suspense plot stuff. My cast list was and is:

WHIT BRADLEY . . . Spencer Tracy, at 35 or so, not the Old Man you all know
KAY UNDERWOOD FISHER . . . Katharine Hepburn, at “Bringing Up Baby” age
GREG KIMBALL . . . Greg Kinnear at “Talk Soup” age, in the Gig Young role
TINA, the assistant . . . Margaret Cho, playing an old friend of mine
PET, the other assistant . . . “Mama” Cass Elliot crossed with Roseanne Barr
MANDY, Greg’s secretary . . . Kathy Griffin, comedienne of “D” list fame

And so on. You don’t have to cast it with living actors or with actors at all. Use anyone; this is a fantasy cast to help you describe the way the characters might talk, walk, act. Character quirks and tags come more easily sometimes this way. Try this sometime if you’re stuck with a great situation and have no one to populate it.

Okay, now what? If you’re having trouble with the words coming, use one of the many freewriting techniques. Do a character interview (corny, but sometimes helpful.) Try going to pen and paper or even crayon and sketchpad. Write lengthwise up the page, across the ruled lines. Whatever it takes to turn off the internal editor and bring out the kindergarten kid. “Hey, this can’t be work, because it’s too messy and not between the lines. It must be play! Whee!” Your subconscious will take control.

It can help to type out a couple of pages of something that you wrote in the past that you liked. No fair copying the original file and pasting it in. The act of retyping it (making changes as they occur to you) should put you back in the flowstate you were in when this original inspiration struck. Don’t go much further than a couple of pages, though, unless you want to revise that older work. It’ll usually turn into a marathon revision session if you do (which can also be nice, but you wanted to write something new, remember?)

I have discovered that it helps me to show my work around after the first draft is in some kind of grammatical form. The advantage is that I don’t have to wait three weeks to three months for it to “settle” in order for me to see flaws and revise. The disadvantage is that whoever I show it to gets the eternal impression that I am a bad writer, and it makes them more and more resistant to looking at anything I write. They just about never want to see the final product, which may not look much like that original. It can be kind of a problem. But it helps me so much that I still do it, even if I have the rep around the net of being a bad writer whose every draft is set in stone and written like the opening to BLEAK HOUSE done by Hunter S. Thompson reincarnated as Philip K. Dick on crack. You might try it if you have understanding critique partners, though.

Have fun out there.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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