Friday, February 18, 2011

In which I get to the root of the problem

My advanced creative writing class started last night (yes, I loved the first round so much I decided to indulge myself for another semester), and with it came crashing home a certain reality that I've been avoiding for a while. It's a niggling thought that had occurred to me on a previous WIP (R.I.P. WIP), but I had thought it was singular to that writing endeavor. I'd made all kinds of excuses for myself - it was too much story driven without enough character, I don't do the angst thing well (which is true), etc. etc. Surely this disease wouldn't infect the others.

Turns out, the bitch is airborne.

It wasn't new information to me. In fact, last night was mainly a review of the techniques we'd discussed last semester. The instructor passed out review copies of things we'd already been over - character background worksheets, plot pyramid dissections, and guidelines for different levels of children's books and their associated content. But it was the last sheet, cut into thirds for each class member to save paper, that dropped the bombshell. It only had five lines of text, and no more than 10 words per line. Some of the lines had less than 3. And they were all questions.

Wants what?
From whom?
Who/what stands in their way?
What are they willing to do to get it?

You should be able to answer these questions for ALL of your main characters. Really, you should be able to answer them for all of your characters, but certainly the main protags and antags. Why? Because it's the action that drives the story. Who wants what is the end goal you're trying to reach, and from whom and what stands in their way establishes the tension. What are they willing to do to get it is the fun part.

So what's wrong with my story? What can't I answer?

What does my main character want?

Please, childrens, don't judge. Don't point at the silly wannabe writer making rookie mistakes. It's unkind. The funny thing is, the story is still a good one. I've managed to fluff up the other parts of the story enough that it's enjoyable, and I distract people with flashy words and funny dialog, but the truth is there in black and white and bold. And as soon as I realized I couldn't answer the most basic of questions about my MAIN CHARACTER, the veil came off. I started analyzing other things I'd written (or tried to write) and found the same problem over and over. I had good, strong characters, but they weren't making their own decisions. They were being led around by the story and everyone else's whims. This is, as the kids like to say, a problem.

But a known problem is a solvable problem, and that's why I'm taking the class. I knew the problem existed, could feel it in my plotting and revising, but I didn't know what it was. And because I didn't know what it was, I didn't know how to solve it. I know it will be hard work to figure out the answers to this question and work it into the WIP, but it's like GI Joe says: knowing is half the battle.

What about you? What are your glaring (or not so glaring) issues? Can you answer these questions for your own characters (say no and make me feel better)?


Lydia K said...

Oh, the basic questions. These tortured me with my last WIP, which I thought was RIP and maybe back to being alive again. Which means, I still have to answer the questions.
Gah. Hit me with a bat, please.

Christina Lee said...

This is awesome! So is "the bitch is airborne" hahahaha!

I would never be unkind, believe me, my mistakes are too numerous to name.

Good for you for charging ahead!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think I can answer those questions about my main characters. BUT my biggest weakness is wanting to conceal those things from the reader and reveal them slowly, over time.

And meanwhile, the reader gets bored waiting to find out what the main character is up to and decides to go read something more rewarding.

What is up with me and the secret-keeping? If the readers don't know why the MC is be-bopping around in the early chapters, doing this and that, what compels them to keep reading.

Nevertheless, I persist on writing every first draft this way, getting the same feedback, and trying to fix it later. Slap head.

Anna Zagar said...

Geez meleez, I really need to take a creative writing class! This self reflection is outstanding. My first book was obscure on some of those questions, but my second was pretty straight forward, but that was purely luck. Thanks for sharing what you learned. I truly appreciate it.

Lola Sharp said...

I don't really start writing without knowing my MC's wants/goals and what shenanigans (and/or people) will get in their way. If my MC can't tell me up front what they need, I don't feel I know them enough to write.

BUT, making sure it isn't cliche (what they want and who/what tries to stop them) is a challenge.Trying to have a fresh spin is always messing with my head.

I spend a LOT of time in revisions adding layers. I am the slowest reviser in all the land. *sigh*

Thus, my challenge (read: absolute hell) is festering and slogging over and over and over again through revisions and rewrites. Usually some middle chapter(s) get ripped out 7-8 times to be rewritten. And I get pretty damn close to torching the entire ms.
Unorganized perfectionist=life of hell. ;)

Hey, you have interesting characters with witty dialogue (of which I have no a funny girl, yo. ;) and now you know where your hang up you said, now you can work through your plot issues. Bing! Huzzah! And all that stuff. :) Go get 'em.

Sari Webb said...

Jem, that's great that you figured it out. Knowing is halfway to fixing ;). I'm sure you'll figure out what your MC wants. Have you tried interviewing them?

Solvang Sherrie said...

That is the big question, isn't it? My stories turn out so much better when I know this from the beginning.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I would never be unkind. I can usually answer those questions about my characters but sometimes I think the forces driving them aren't interesting enough and I have to find a way to raise the stakes or increase the obstacles.