Monday, October 27, 2014

"Resting" as Part of Writing and Editing

Writers share lots of practices and habits without thinking they have anything in common with each other. As practitioners of a solitary profession, we tend to think we’re entirely on our own. But we do share practices that help us develop and complete our work.

I’m a strong advocate of writing a fairly complete rough draft, working on that until it is nearly polished, and then setting it aside for one to three months, depending on the length of the work (a short story or novel, for example). I leave myself enough time to become “unfamiliar” with the work so that when I return to it I will read something with a fresh perspective, discover ideas I didn’t know I was including and characters who surprised me, and I will notice where the writing gets mushy and the story line is rushed. I will see the flaws, and I hope the occasional successful passage.

But what will I do during this waiting period? Sometimes I like to alternate between an Anita Ray story and a Joe Silva mystery. I could start another writing project, perhaps another novel, but that might interfere with my ability to return to the original mss, the one that is settling and aging nicely on the corner of my desk. I could work on book reviews or short blog posts, but I do that anyway throughout the week. I could begin another short story, something that won’t take the entire waiting time but enough of it. Or I could resurrect an earlier story started and abandoned. 

This time around I’m resurrecting a forgotten Anita Ray short story, one that I abandoned and forgot about. As I read it over I can see where I went wrong—three terrific murder suspects but no murder. Instead I originally wanted to concentrate on a different sort of crime, something akin to espionage, but that meant the story would meander for a while and lose its coherence. Perhaps the idea is better suited to a novel or novella rather than a short story. But now I want to use the setting and characters and set-up for a story, so I have begun reworking it. As I trim dialogue, insert a murder scene, and recast one or two characters, I find I have a much better, tighter story.

The story has been sitting forgotten for over two years, but the lovely thing about computers is that it’s still there, easily accessible and readable. I’ve been working on this story for a week now, rethinking and rewriting. Meanwhile, my unconscious has been sending me snippets of dialogue to incorporate into the “resting” novel when I return to it, and problems I had left unsolved or solved awkwardly now seem to have ready and elegant solutions.

The period of “resting” a story or novel is also a different way of working on them. By the end of the month I’ll have a reworked and nearly finished Anita Ray short story and be several steps ahead in completing the novel I set aside a few weeks ago.

John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction and other books on writing as well as several novels, once commented that novelists can be slow thinkers, slow to come to solutions, by which he meant writers should be willing to wait for the right solution to come along rather than jumping at the first idea they have. Don’t grab the first idea, the first twist. Let the story rest and see what rises to the surface over time. After a period of time away from the work, I find it easier to see what needs to be reworked and where I can strengthen the story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Knowing Your Characters

A new story or novel usually begins for me when I see characters moving around, engaged in a specific activity. Once I know these visual images will be part of the story, I begin looking more closely at the protagonist.

Developing a character in fiction often seems to be an exercise in choosing hair and eye color, height, and physical build. The man, of course, is always handsome and strong and drop-dead attractive in most novels. And the woman is equally gorgeous, at least to him. These are the details we learn first. But I want to know much more about my characters before I begin writing, alert to the fact that I will discover more as I work.

I keep a set of questions to answer as I begin working with a new protagonist or important character. These questions are equally important for the main characters in subsequent Mellingham books. I may not use all this information in the story, but if I begin writing without knowing the answers to these questions, the character will come across as flat and undeveloped. This is the process I went through to develop Chief of Police Joe Silva, who appears first in Murder in Mellingham

Here is the basic list I work with. You may have other questions important to you and your stories or settings.

Where did she go to school, or college?
How did she pay for it?
Did she graduate?
What is her economic or social class background?
Does she own a set of formal attire? How does she look in formal clothes?
Does she have a distinctive walk or mannerism?
Is she left-handed?
Where is she in the birth order in her family?
Were her parents young or old when she was born?
Are her parents still alive, still married?
Does she maintain close relations with her family?
Is she athletic? What are her pastimes?
Is she a regular voter? Is she politically savvy?
Does she have pets? 
Does she know her neighbors?
Does she have a lot of friends, or a few very good ones?
What kind of car does she drive?
How old was she when she learned to drive?
Does she need to be able to drive for where she lives?
What is her first reaction to someone threatening her?

The last question may seem to be the whole point of a story, for example, but is in fact how the story grows. In some parts of the country a man or woman is expected to respond to a phsical threat with enough force to make the other person back down. But in other parts of the country, the first choice of reaction is humor, to defuse the situation among other things.
The question of education is equally important. A working class man or woman who went to college in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps as the first in the family to do so, would appear on campus for the first day of class well dressed, perhaps in a blazer or formal sweater. A young man or woman who attended prep school would dress differently.

Someone who is very conscious of social class and maintaining status would choose a car carefully. Someone who grew up with money and didn't care about it could be just as happy driving a junker, but he would have the car serviced regularly by a very good mechanic. In Love Takes a Detour, the people of West Woodbury village are dependent on their cars. The rural area has no public transportation, and the outlying farms are too far away from town for walking. Keeping a car on the road means women as well as men are ready to do quick repairs.

Chief Joe Silva is typical of the man who grew up in a working class family, broke the tradition of generations and went to college. He paid his way through by working part time, and, typical of that era, left school with no student loans. He remains close to his large extended Portuguese family, and takes people as they are. As the chief of police in Mellingham, he encounters men and women of all classes, and he judges them only on their behavior. He doesn't like ostentation, and he admires those who are good parents. The sixth book in the Mellingham series, Last Call for Justice, focuses on Joe's family and background.

Just as our close relatives can surprise us with a quirk or personal taste they never revealed before, so too our characters can startle us as we write. This is the best part of discovery, when the character comes alive and leaves the author's control, and I always look forward to those moments of going deeper into a character I thought I knew.