Archive for the ‘Work in Progress’ Category

5 Steps for adding a new character to your (completed) novel

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

When my agent told me that I needed to add a new character to my novel – the one I’ve been working on for years and have revised countless times and considered this close to submission-ready – I wanted to make like my butterscotch tabby, Sunny, and curl up under a blanket and shut down.

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But then I remembered that I’d done it before. When I was working with my editor on FLYAWAY, she also suggested that I add a new character – a “decoy boy” to distract readers from the inevitability of the main character, Stevie, getting together with the major love interest, Alan. My character The Professor was born, and he actually became the character who generated the most comments and questions from students in my school visits.

So in my quest to add a new character to my current WIP, I went back to the process I had used before and came up with these five steps:

1. Clarify the new character’s role in your novel. Will this character serve as a decoy, as The Professor did in FLYAWAY, or will they fill another role? Other possible roles might include ally or mentor to the main character or proxy for the antagonist. Being clear on the new character’s role in your novel will help you determine how much weight to give him in terms of page time and backstory.

2. Determine the relative importance of the character. Is your new character a walk-on in one scene, or will she play a major role throughout the book? The new character my agent suggested that I add in this revision only appears in a few scenes and has little direct impact on the plot. Because of his relatively minor importance, I was careful not to flesh him out so fully that he drew undue reader attention.

3. Decide which other characters the new character will connect with. How tightly is this character woven into the weave of the story? Does he interact mostly with the main character, or will he connect to one or more minor characters as well? Will he live in one plot line or be part of several subplots? In order to weave my new character more closely into my story, I gave one of my main character’s friends a secret crush on him.

4. Create a name and a backstory relative to the character’s weight in the plot. This step is tricky. We writers love to create characters. I could have easily written a 10-page biography of my new character in which I explored his childhood and how it has impacted his current hopes, dreams, and fears. But since my character has relatively little importance compared to my major and supporting characters, I fleshed out only the essential elements of his backstory. I made notes on his name and age, his status in the school hierarchy, his interest in music, and why he’s attracted to my main character. That’s all the information I really needed. And because his relative importance to the plot is so minimal, I decided that my main character wouldn’t refer to him by name; she calls him Knit Hat Boy.

5. Choose the scenes in which the character will appear. Now that you’ve determined your character’s role in your novel, decided on her relative importance, and created an appropriate name and backstory, it’s time to “shoehorn” her into your already completed book. To complete this step, I read through my manuscript, and using Comments in Track Changes, noted the location of each scene where my new character would appear. Some of these were scenes I’d written previously that I planned to revise to include him; others were scenes I needed to add.

With your backstory notes and Comments in front of you, the final step, of course, is to write your new character into the novel. Easy? No. Worth it? In my case, yes. Thanks to my agent’s advice, I now have a new character who adds one more subtle layer of depth to my story.

Have you ever had to write a new character into an already completed manuscript? How did it go for you? What were the challenges you encountered?

Revision strategy: the composite revision letter

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

I just finished a major revision of my latest novel (whew!), and now that I’m done, I want to share one of my revision strategies with you. I’ve never tried this technique before, but I found it helpful in organizing my thoughts and creating a revision plan.

Any writer who has gotten a revision letter from an editor or agent knows that responding to one requires a level of digging into your manuscript, rethinking assumptions, and killing your darlings that you would never reach on your own. In short, it’s torture. Strange to say, though, one of the things I miss most about having an agent and an editor is getting that dreaded revision letter because in spite of the challenge it always offered, I enjoyed being pushed beyond my perceived limits.

That’s why I decided to write my own revision letter. I had queried a number of agents with the previous draft of my novel, and several asked to see a full manuscript. Of those who read the full, three or four sent me detailed feedback about my story, letting me know what they enjoyed about it as well as what didn’t work for them.

Instead of just filing these responses away, I decided to combine them to create a revision letter to guide me toward my next draft. I cut and pasted sections from each agent’s email, making sure to include not only their suggestions for improvement but also their words of encouragement. The result was a cohesive letter detailing what worked in my manuscript and providing concrete steps for making my story stronger. I printed the letter and used it as my guide throughout the revision process, responding to the comments through making hard decisions about my work, the way I would if I were doing a rewrite for my agent or editor.

One of the agents who gave me feedback said she would be willing to look at my novel again if I addressed the issues she brought up, so I’ll definitely send the new version to her. And even though I received rejections from the other agents who read my full manuscript, their suggestions have helped me strengthen my work. I found working from my composite revision letter rewarding, and I hope other writers will find the technique useful, too.

Do you have a favorite revision jumpstarter that you’d like to share?

 

Fearless Revision

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Tomorrow is the new moon, which means I will launch into a major revision of my novel. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but I believe in the cycles of the earth, and the new moon is a time for planting seeds and therefore the perfect time to start a major project. Anyway. I’ve spent the last month gearing up for this revision, which means doing things like:

1. Re-reading the manuscript. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I find it very useful to read my manuscript with a “child’s mind” – in other words, trying to read it as if I’ve never seen it before.

2. Taking copious notes. I open a Revision Notes file and start jotting ideas for changes I want to make.

3. Reworking character sketches. Now’s the time to deepen my characterizations, so I do lots of writing about the characters inside and outside of the events of the novel.

4. Doing additional research. If there are still factual questions in my mind, or if I feel like I need more background on an element in the novel, I do more research. For this novel, my research included watching the four-plus hour movie “Cleopatra.”

5. Creating a new timeline. This is super important. I try to find ways to tighten up my timeline for tension.

6. Making notes on the manuscript. In addition to jotting ideas in my revision file, I use Track Changes to make comments on the actual manuscript. I’m not rewriting yet, just inserting comments like, “Would she be angry here?” or “Move this scene to Chapter 5.” Kind of like a road map that I can refer to as I revise.

Now that I’m ready, it’s time to be fearless. This revision isn’t going to be about making little tweaks to the plot or characters. It’s going to be a paradigm shift based on the “aha”s I’ve had all month as I’ve re-read and thought about my story. Basically, I’ve realized that my current draft is actually the backstory of the novel I really need to write. So it’s time to rip it all apart and start over.

I’ve come to believe that unless I do a revision like this, where I truly go back to the drawing board in some way, I’m not pushing myself to write the best novel I can. It’s so easy to gloss over things that aren’t completely working and think that agents and editors won’t notice the glitches, but they do. They always do. So I’m going to put on my Warrior Woman outfit, gird my loins, and leap into the fray.

Wish me luck.

 

Three important questions to ask your (unreliable) narrator

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

I recently finished the first draft of a novel. As I let it sit and percolate, I find myself wondering whether the story would be more interesting if I made my narrator, who is also my main character, a little less reliable.

I love books with unreliable narrators. Some of my favorites are INVISIBLE by Pete Hautman

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LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

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…and INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch.

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Unreliable narrators add a layer of interest to the story because you, as a reader, are never sure that what they’re telling you is true. I even paid homage to my favorite books by making Stevie, the main character and narrator of my YA novel FLYAWAY, somewhat unreliable.

As I think about adding this narrative layer to my current WIP, I realize that there are three questions I need to ask my narrator/main character in every scene:

1. What do you believe about the situation at hand? A character’s unreliability can stem from several different causes. In some cases, the character may not be telling the truth because he or she is unaware of it. In my WIP, for example, my main character, Desiree, knows that something is different about her, but she has made a wrong assumption about what that difference is. So she is not really lying to the readers, the other characters, or herself; she simply is unaware of the truth. She believes that what she is conveying to the reader is true, even though it isn’t.

Other unreliable narrators, though, are actively hiding the truth. In these cases, it’s important that you, as a writer, know what the character actually believes and why they are obscuring that belief.

2. What do you want the other characters to believe? This question will help you decide how much your character will disclose to others in the world of the novel. In my WIP, Desiree desperately wants to hide the fact that she is different from her best friend, Emmy. So even though readers know that Desiree believes something is wrong with her, they will see her behaving as if everything is normal, especially when she’s around her friend.

Be aware that your narrator might answer this question differently for each character she interacts with in. In other words, there may be some characters that the narrator is willing to disclose her secrets to and others from which she wants or needs to hide it.

What do you want the reader to believe? This last question is the essential one in creating an unreliable narrator. Will your narrator share secrets with the reader, even ones that he doesn’t share with other characters, or will he tell the reader one thing and, by his actions in the story, show another?

In a few weeks, I’ll be diving in to revise my novel, using these three questions as my guide.

Do you like books with unreliable narrators? What are some of your favorites?

Never fear the Nano

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

In all the years that I’ve been writing novels, I’ve never done NanoWriMo. (For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. In the month of November, writers are challenged to complete an entire 50,000-word novel in 30 days.)

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I always find some reason that I “can’t” do NaNoWrimo. “I’m in the middle of a revision,” I’ll tell my writer friends, “so it doesn’t make sense to start a first draft,” or “There’s just too much going on in my life right now.” Either that, or I trot out my diatribe on how I just don’t write that way (see my post on why I choose to write slowly). But always niggling in the back of my mind was a suspicion that I didn’t do it because I was afraid.

Afraid of what? you might ask. Afraid of not meeting the goal, I guess. Or afraid of pushing myself that hard. Or maybe, just maybe, afraid that I’d succeed and actually like it.

I know what you’re thinking: now she’s going to tell us that she finally broke down and did NaNo this year. Well, I didn’t. Not exactly. What I did do was dip my toe in the NaNoWriMo water. Instead of writing a 50,000-word novel in November, I wrote 30,000 words in a novel that I’d already started – that I was 45,000 words into, to be exact.

Thirty-thousand words is a long way from fifty-thousand, but getting that many words down in a month was still a challenge for me. It meant I had to write a thousand  words every day. Every day. No Saturdays off  or days where I could argue that I was too tired after a long day of teaching to write more than a couple of paragraphs. It also meant that I had to keep pushing forward. No going back and perfecting what I’d written the day before, no sitting and staring at my laptop screen while I agonized over the perfect word or phrase. Just straight on, get-the-damn-story-down, writing.

The most difficult part of the experiment for me was that I had to write badly. This 78,000-word novel I’ve just finished is probably the worst piece of writing I’ve ever done, filled with inconsistent characters, a scrambled timeline, and clunky prose. But it’s also the fastest that I’ve ever taken a novel from idea to completion, which means that I have that much more time to revise and make it better.

I’m really glad I pushed past my fear and did this modified version of NaNoWriMo. Now that I know I can write quick and dirty, I’ll do it more often. It was a joy to just power through my story without angst-ing over every character motivation and word choice, and it feels great to have a finished manuscript in my hands, albeit a messy one.

Next year, maybe I’ll take the challenge and do the full NaNo.

Did you do NaNoWriMo this year? If so, would you recommend it? What did you learn from the experience?