We’ve heard from Jenna that you should write honestly. We’ve also heard from Codie that you should find that sweet middle spot between planning and over-planning. I think both staff members gave great advice. Sometimes you can’t predict your brilliant moments. Sometimes your honesty creates more humor or pain or heartbreak than any fictive plot could ever hope to surpass. And sometimes being (slightly) meticulous is the only way to get anything accomplished.
So, if you listen to Jenna and Codie, you’ve got your plot covered: you’re going to write your truth and you’re going to semi-plan. (Phew—glad we figured that out!) But what about your characters? Do you wing it or do you write out their life story before you write one word? Like Codie said, I don’t think there’s one clear-cut answer or plan of attack. Some folks go above and beyond to detail their characters with birthdays and sibling names and strange talents or habits (no, I am not talking about sixth grade me…). Others stick to the basics—first name, last name, hair color, and eye color—and go from there. We typically see those characters fleshed out as the story goes on, learning specific details as they relate to the story line.
But sometimes, we don’t. Some writers (inadvertently) leave their characters one-dimensional and bland. And that’s a big no-no. Characters—especially the main characters—are there for a reason. You are telling their story for a reason, and for that, you might want to give your character a personality. Does your character fear anything? Did she play a sport in high school or did he see his favorite band with his dad when he was fourteen? Any annoying habits or pet peeves? Does your character like his or her job? His or her family? Himself or herself?
Think about it: would you see a movie that simply details a day in the life of [insert name here]? You know next to nothing about this person. Sure, the plot can help plug the holes and the setting can provide a nice backdrop, but other than that, you’re clueless. You don’t have any reason to care because you’re watching a cardboard cutout walk around, living some random life. If I was watching that movie, I’d probably walk out of the theater.
Try making a social media page for your character. (No, you don’t really have to make a fake page.) Is your character into Facebook, or does this person like the brevity and instantaneous gratification of Twitter? Or, would your character stay far, far away from social media? That’s probably a small-but-important nugget of information for your readers. However, I would definitely warn against a laundry list of character facts. Just because you know something about your character doesn’t mean your readers need to know right away. Be sly. Be coy. Slip in little facts along the way. It’s like making a friend: you learn more and more as time goes on. In the literary world, each chapter is like another lunch date with your new acquaintance. By the end of the story, your readers should know and care about your characters, no matter if they’d like to give that person bear hug or hit him or her over the head with a frying pan. Either way, you’re creating something.
In short, don’t take any less time with your plot or your setting. Plan what you’d like and/or write from the heart. Most importantly, though, make sure your characters have more than just a name and a face. Give them their own thought process, their own reasons for making decisions. Remembers, characters are real people, too.
First off, if you have not read Jenna's first piece of advice, you should check that out. Both of us will be giving out some advice monthly via this blog.
To Plan or Not to Plan? Shakespeare probably did not plan that this quote would be used so often, and in so many variations—many of them by college students. To Sleep or Not to Sleep? To Skip Class or Not to Skip Class? (I'm sure you get my point.)
National Novel Writing Month (affectionately referred to as NanoWrimo) started nearly two weeks ago. How am I doing? I've got less than 100 words, though I switched my novel twice and have been juggling school. With all of these papers and projects, even thinking about tackling a 50,000-word goal seems daunting. It makes sense that adding planning to the mix would take away some of that stress.
But the question is: Should we plan?
Yes and no.
Yes. It does help to get all of your ideas regarding plot, character, tone, etc. out on paper (or screen) to see what you have. It's like a road map for your story. Sometimes there are inconsistencies, blank spaces, and also major gaps that you leave blank for what seems like the longest time. And that's okay.
Something I love doing is typing up all of this information for one of my stories and seeing it all listed out clearly. (This may just be me, as I really love making lists for some reason or another.) Nonetheless, it helps to see some sort of picture of what you have. This is like planning out a paper before you start writing it. (You know, that thing your professors recommend, rather than turning in your first draft twenty minutes after printing it.)
No. You can have fun with it. When I was in the tenth grade, I planned to finish writing a novel during the summer. That was about five or six years ago, and I haven't written much for that particular novel since. But, I have added ideas that have made the story much better, and I know that if I do finish it, I'll be happier than I would have had I stuck with my plan to finish writing it a long time ago.
I think having no plan whatsoever is the trickier option because you have less of an idea of how the story will end—and even begin. You can still plan after you've started writing, but I find that those new ideas you get are really rewarding when they are very unexpected and out of nowhere. It's that ah-ha! moment you get that puts a smile on your face, yet at the same time makes you say, Oh, my readers are going to hate me for being tricky and adding in something like this.
Overall consensus: do whatever you want, but realize that you do not need to plan out every single thing from the get-go. None of us (I hope) planned out every single class we were going to take, when we were going to take it, once we first stepped foot on Towson's campus.
So, plan for weeks for that novel you've had since middle school. Use a random generator to come up with a plot and then start writing five minutes later. Do what makes you excited, and remember that Method and Madness can go hand-in-hand. (Yes, I stole that from Hamlet too. But it's also a book I needed for my Fiction Writing class. See, the things from your classes end up being useful!)
Once a month, I'll be providing unsolicited advice - pro bono. Not as good as free cheese at a poetry reading, but not as bad as free head lice at a Cub Scout den meeting. I am relatively new to the literary scene, and my goal is to share my observations. I am happy to divulge the nuggets of wisdom that I obtain through my experiences as a Grub Street team member and English student at Towson University.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading (with free cheese!) hosted by the Towson Literary Reading Series. Poet Abdul Ali read from his book, Trouble Sleeping, and afterwards answered questions from the audience. Someone asked what advice he had for young writers. To paraphrase, Ali said to write honestly. He said to tell your truth.
I am currently enrolled in a course called Advanced Writing Fiction. For the class, we write three short stories. Prompted by Ali, I decided to write a short story about sexual assault and self injury - two topics that have affected me personally. I was confident that I was ready to tell my truth and write honestly. During the in-class workshop, my piece received mixed reviews. Some people responded positively to my fictionalized experiences. Others criticized my protagonist (whom I based heavily on myself) as being too naïve and attention-seeking. It was a challenging process.
Despite some of the harsher critiques, I do not regret writing honestly. I wrote with my heart. I told a story that I was finally ready to tell, and I am pleased with the final result. For me, it was a healthy, therapeutic exercise to make fiction out of aspects of my life. Seizing the opportunity to write about something personal has made me a more empathetic reader. I felt myself growing as I worked on this piece. I am not sure I could have said the same thing had I tried to write something else.
It is difficult to write honestly, and it can be painful to tell your truth. But you are the only person who can do that. Your life experiences, thoughts, and feelings are yours alone. There is something sacred in making the conscious decision to record those truths, even privately. When you take the time to write, please take the time to know yourself. Take pleasure in your personal growth, and remember to be gentle.
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.