Sunday, 27 July 2014

Overcoming Adversity

The most basic rule of any story is that the main character must face an issue at the beginning that they need to overcome. During the course of the story, said character faces up to this obstacle, usually encounters some adversity but achieves their goal by the end of the story and is richer for the experience. The character's situation, personality, dreams and experiences in the final chapter are usually different than those in chapter one. That's the not-so secret formula to telling any kind of story.

It only dawned on me recently that we all have our own story to tell and my experience of writing a novel and my transition into writing is part of my own story. And like David (my main character) and indeed any main character, I have my obstacle (I think it's fair enough to call my novel an obstacle) and I hope that one day, I'll have overcome this challenge and have gained something from the experience of writing.

Except that there is a problem with the plot in my own story: my book still hasn't been written. Either the challenge I have set myself is too huge, or my main character (me) is too weak to carry it out. Hmmmm....

Spoiler alert:

I think I've established over my blog posts that when it comes to writing, I'm not the most disciplined. In fact, I'm quite the opposite. I'm extremely lazy, I habitually procrastinate and I actively avoid sitting down to write anything in either my notebook or laptop.

Of course, I'm organised enough to pop my notebook into my handbag almost every day along with my keys, phone and purse. I find that actively putting the notebook and pen in my handbag relieves my guilt in some small way, as if that's half the battle in writing a novel. "Sure, I was hoping to write today, I even had my notebook in my handbag as proof! Pity I just didn't get a chance to write anything, sure wasn't I too busy?"

I honestly couldn't fathom how many times I've recited that mantra in my head as I sat down to watch television at 8pm. This is then accompanied by the usual "well I can't start writing now, sure who writes after 8pm?" I have to say, this thought process is an incredibly effective way to rid oneself of any form of guilt about the writing process. It's also an incredibly effective way to destroy one's attempts in writing a novel.

One skill that I've honed over the last few years is my ability to make excuses about why I haven't written anything. It's sunny, I better walk the dog. I think the girls are coming over this weekend, I better clean the bathrooms. When did I last change the bedsheets? Better change them now. The kitchen floor looks a bit grubby, I better mop it. I haven't been on Facebook in 20 minutes, better check it. I wonder what's trending on twitter? Is there anything on in the cinema this weekend? I better check. What were those songs I heard on the radio and wanted to download? I'll just log into iTunes and check the singles chart. What will I wear to work tomorrow? I better check the weather.

Repeat to fade.

It's incredible how easy I find it to put off my writing and prioritise something (usually trivial) over it. In fact it's embarrassing when I compare how much time I engage in the actual act of writing my book in my day to day life versus how much time I devote to thinking and daydreaming about being a published writer. Let's just say the scales are tipped heavily to one side.

So I guess that in order to achieve my goal and overcome this challenge, something has to shift, right? Thankfully, the main character in my own story (that's me if anyone is lagging behind, try to keep up) is becoming slightly more adept at self discipline and motivation. Don't get too excited, I said slightly.

Being the organised and diligent writer that I am, I had my notebook with me in work last week, in case I was struck by some enlightened idea (which never happens) and I might have needed to write it down before the inspiration deserted me. It was only when I got home Friday night that I realised I had left my notebook in my desk drawer. My immediate response was "Oh well, no writing this weekend." But surely a proper writer wouldn't let such a trivial matter impact their schedule? If I leave my work diary or my work phone at home, I don't just leave the office and say "I'll come back and be a social worker when I have all my shit together" so why did I think it was acceptable to think I could do that as a writer?

It's like I've learned at Listowel and all my other writing courses, if I want to be a writer I have to act like one and prioritise my writing, treating it with the same level of importance and respect as any other important areas of my life.

So I improvised and wrote in a different notebook, did some more plot development and I updated my blog. It's not perfect and it would have been better to have access to all my notes but I'll get them tomorrow and update my notebook. The important thing is that I didn't give in to my own pressure to procrastinate and avoid; I challenged myself and didn't give in to the laziness and avoidance that comes so naturally. It may have been a small step in itself but the meaning behind it is a great confidence boost for me.

And if that confidence boost is a sign that I'm one step closer to overcoming the obstacle then I'm not going to complain!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Character Building

"Character is plot, plot is character."

I would imagine that Francis Scott Fitzgerald's words are embedded into the brains of most writers (both budding and fully fledged); they've been ingrained in mine since I went to my first writing seminar several years ago, not that I ever really paid much attention to them.

In my (short) experience as a writer, the big question that dominates most aspiring writer's lips seems to be which is more important, character or plot? It's like the great, unanswerable chicken and egg question for writers. It is a question that has permeated every seminar/class/course/workshop that I've ever attended (which hasn't been as many as I'm making out in that sentence) and has always sparked a significant amount of debate and thought within my peers. Except for me. I always knew my answer. Easy. Plot. Next question please.

Okay, I'm painfully aware that that makes me sound like a pretentious know it all and I'm now eagerly trying to dispel that notion. I'm not a know it all, in fact I'm so inconspicuous in any class I attend that most of the teachers don't notice me until about the 4th week (they might know my name by week 8). I have a tendency to absorb most of my information through observation and reflection, which means I occasionally fade into the background in many writing courses.

Most of the facilitators of any writing course I've ever attended have said that a good character is what drives a novel and that plot is a secondary feature. I would diligently note this advice in my notebook, underlining and bullet pointing it while internally rolling my eyes in disagreement, externally nodding and "hmmm"ing in mock agreement with my peers.

For me, I've always been an advocate of plot over character for the simple reason that I believe writing is story telling. Yes, of course the use of language is vital and character development and transformation are intrinsically linked to plot progress. But I've always viewed the plot as the story, and without a story, one has no novel. Black and white, perhaps, but it's been my naive, simplistic way of working through the novel progress.

It's only now as I actually write my novel (yes, I know!) that I can sheepishly look back to each seminar/class/course/workshop with a pinch of humility and gratitude for my meekness. The proverbial lightbulb has switched on over my head. Of course character development makes a novel! How did it take me so long to realise it? ("Because you weren't writing your book, Sinead" - brain).

One of the most basic steps in developing a character is a character outline, almost an assessment of your character's personality, appearance, attributes, flaws etc. It's a basic tool to help the writer get to know the character. I've done this for David, my main character. In fact, I've done it several times for David to try and get to know a little bit more about him every time he comes into my head. Another exercise that most writing courses carry out is the embodiment of the character: as in, the writer acts out the character, their physical traits, speech pattern, mannerisms, facial expressions etc. I too have done this for David, twice in fact.

I know David better than I know anyone, even myself. I know him inside out, head to toe, backwards and forwards. I know what he looks like, how much he weighs, what annoys him, what scares him. I know that he sits with his legs open, tends to shrug and isn't good at making eye contact. I know what flavour of ice cream he prefers and how he got the scar underneath his eyebrow. I know what haunts him. I know what his biggest regret is and I know what his goals are. I know what his path in life is and I know what he will achieve.

I know what you're thinking, Sinead, your character development is amazing! Yes, yes, thank you (*pause for applause*). I actually thought this myself (well amazing is probably a stretch, I'd probably replace it with "enough") and this is what I deluded myself into thinking over the past two years. Sure, don't I know David well enough? I don't need to develop him any further.

And then I started to write.

And then I started to recognise all the other characters in my book. Each of whom, I hadn't done a shred of development with. When I started to write about them, it honestly felt like a room full of strangers, staring expectantly at me. They don't know me and I sure as hell don't know them.

How can a plot make sense if the character has no agenda? No reason to act this way, feel this way, see things this way? How can it become real? Alive? How can it come off the page? How can it embed within the reader's mind? How can the reader be expected to turn the page and believe in the character's motives, actions, beliefs?

They can't.

Turns out, character development is important, crucial, vital to the storytelling process. I've learned (albeit the hard way) that plot falls flat without good characters and I don't mean good in the classic good vs bad way, I mean well developed, complex individuals with their own back story and personality. There are some (hopefully) good characters in my book who have done some horrific things.

So I've worked hard. I've spent the past few weeks developing my characters. I've made spider diagrams, lists and cue cards filled with personality traits, physical appearances and background stories for my one main character, three major characters and five minor characters. I've synced my character timelines with my plot timeline. It's been a slog and exhausting (repetitive) work but it's helped so much in two ways: firstly it's fleshed out my plot in ways that I could never have imagined; secondly, it's taught me to be more open minded and less stubborn about other viewpoints in writing.

"Character is plot, plot is character".

The lightbulb switches on.