So you may have noticed that I have failed in my goal of posting once a week. But I have an excuse! I have been working very hard! I have 30,000 words of my novel now and I’ve been writing a little poetry, too. Hurray! And it is the middle of the semester so life is hectic. That said, I think I’m going to take a break from this blog until after I graduate because there is just too much to do and I have to prioritize!!! I apologize. And I will see you on the other side of my MFA degree 😉
This is just to say that I’ve been working away on my novel and my lecture and cooking a ton of food from scratch so I don’t have as much time right now to blog about anything particularly interesting. My advisor really loves the new third person I’m playing with, which I’m very pleased about, and she wants me to keep moving forward in the story for now, so that’s what I’m doing. We need to have 75 pages of our creative thesis to graduate and right now I have about 95 pages (I am trying to get through the whole draft for my own sinister purposes). My goal is to get to 30,000 words by the end of the third packet. We’ll see how that goes. It feels really good to move forward at this point because it gives me a glimpse of the bigger picture of the story, the structure, as it were, instead of only writing and revising in smaller chunks. I’m trying to just speed through right now to get the words down (because it is so tempting to stop and edit every single word) and then I’ll go back and to get those same words to suck less, lol.
I really need to spend some time on my lecture, too. I’m toying with the idea of using powerpoint and it’s been ages since I’ve even looked at powerpoint, so I think some brushing up is in order. I have a rough draft/outline of my lecture written out, but I’d really like to get a more final version done. I’m going to be using a lot of exercise examples, too, so I’ve got to write those out and then hope my lecture doesn’t end up being two hours long 😉
Anyway, that’s all for now. But before I go I just wanted to show you all the official cover for my dad’s new short story collection coming out through Tagus Press this fall. Doesn’t it look lovely?
Whew! Packet 2 is in and I’m taking a much needed break to do things like clean off my desk, lol 🙂 But I have an exciting announcement to make. My dad’s new short story collection “The Conjurer and Other Tales” is coming out this fall from Tagus Press. If you enjoyed his first novel, “The Undiscovered Island“, are interested in Portugal and the Azores, or just love magic realism I think you’ll really like this collection.
Here’s the official description:
The Azores––an archipelago of magic and beauty in the Mid-Atlantic––is the unique setting and inspiration for this collection.
The people who inhabit these stories are etched from the fertile, volcanic soil, the sea, and the atmosphere surrounding the nine islands; like the nine Muses each island has its own special attributes. Whether love, power, or meaning is their quest, these characters find themselves subject to the whims of Fate and Fortune. Here, the prosaic present is suddenly confronted by opposing forces and realities. While these stories take place in the microcosm of the Azores, they represent a much larger, wider sphere, reflecting the foibles and idiosyncrasies of humanity the world over.
Hopefully I’ll have more details on the release date soon 🙂
Okay, so I know I’ve been very bad and skipped another week of posting, but I’ve been swamped with rewriting everything (again) after getting some awesome feedback from my advisor (and a few other people). I haven’t even had a chance to work on my lecture yet and my next packet is due a week from today so there has been a lot of panicking. But I didn’t really think I could get away with skipping two weeks in a row, so here I am!
I’m trying an experiment this time around in my rewrites. I’m writing everything in third person instead of first. Why? Because I was curious to see if it might help me get a better grasp of my characters, especially my protagonist. I know that sounds a little strange. It seems like the usual advice is to use first person as a way to get more deeply inside the head of one’s protagonist, but the difficulty there, I think, is that it can be hard to capture a character’s voice when you’re not really sure who that character is. And one thing I like about third person is that it lets me see that character from the outside as well as the inside. Lately I’ve been feeling so locked inside my protagonist’s head that I’m stumbling my way through the story like a blind person. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, I thought, why not? Let’s try it in third and see what happens and honestly the result has really startled me.
I’d forgotten how much I love third person. I won’t even go into how much I love omniscient because I’m trying to steer clear of that POV for this story. I haven’t yet figured out how to write an omniscient voice that really works and I don’t want to make this harder than it already is. But third person in general is a POV that I feel comfortable in. It’s familiar and welcoming, like an old friend. I grew up reading mostly varying degrees of third person because I read so much middle grade fantasy as a kid and it’s been odd to see how much first person has infiltrated the current YA market. Not that there’s anything wrong with first person, but, my god, it is everywhere. It is inescapable! And sometimes I really do want to escape from it, especially when all those first person teen voices start to blend into one voice.
Of course, I’m not entirely sure what I have now works. I’m not sure the story’s actually better in third than it was in first. But it feels so much more like a story! I don’t know how to explain that. It feels like a real world with people and places I as the narrator can describe, instead of constantly being tangled up in the inner workings of my protagonist’s mind, especially when I’m not even sure half the time of who my protagonist really is. Maybe third person is a way for me to tell myself the story so that I can then translate it for other people 🙂
The irony of all this is that the story didn’t start in first person originally. This whole novel started as a messy short story/sketch of a novel that was written in a pretty distant third person. I wrote it a few years ago and realized it really had to be a novel, that it was way too complicated for a short story. And when I decided to make that transition in my second semester at VCFA (I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for a year!) I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice first person. After all, I never wrote in first person and I came to VCFA to learn and try new things, and so many YA books were written in first, and my protagonist was a writer so I thought I could make the voice lyrical and poetic without sounding forced, and anyway I was having such a difficult time writing third in the novel I worked on first semester. So I tried it and it was fun and I do think I learned a lot. I think the third person I’m writing now is so much more solid than what I was writing first semester. I’m much more able to get into my protagonist’s mind with all that first person under my belt, but maybe this story just wasn’t meant to stay in that POV.
It reminds me of something Tim Wynne-Jones said to me when I was working on my critical thesis last semester. I was writing about intrusive narrators and I kept talking about narrators as if the authors had chosen them out of a box. Like, hey, I’m writing a silly MG novel about a governess. I’ll just pick a voice that reflects the theme I’m writing about and be done with it. But Tim pointed out that a narrator is the voice of a story and that implies something heard by the author. Many of us when we start writing hear that voice and write accordingly. It isn’t necessarily a cerebral, intellectual thing. It’s instinctual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an interview with an author writing in first person who says they clearly heard the character’s voice in their head begging them to write their story. I never had that with this project. The voice I heard when I was first writing that short story was the traditional once upon a time, fairy tale voice. I’ve only heard the voice of a story in first person a few times. So maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I ought to just stick with my gut instincts. Now I just have to wait and see what my advisor thinks 🙂
So the graduating class at VCFA have to give a lecture in their final residency. Sometimes people use their critical thesis as a basis for their lecture, but I’m choosing to do something completely different. I’m going to be doing a lecture on characterization, more specifically, on using freewriting to get to know one’s characters.
What do I mean by freewriting? Lots of different things. You might interview your characters, for example, or write about your protagonist from the perspective of a secondary character. You might describe the contents of their wardrobe, their refrigerator, or their trash. If you have a character who writes songs or poems, why not try writing a few examples of something they’ve written? There are so many possibilities here, but the point is always to learn more about your characters.
I have a lot of trouble figuring my characters out in general (especially my protagonists), which is why I picked this topic. And while I don’t think everyone needs to chain themselves to their desks right now and do all these exercises or their story/novel will fail miserably, I do think they can be useful tools when you’re getting started or feeling stuck. I think the better we know our characters the less floundering we are likely to do and god knows I have done a lot of floundering.
Anyway, if anyone reading this has any suggestions for freewriting exercises I would greatly appreciate all the help I can get. What do you do to get to know your characters?
If you write at all, sooner or later you’ll come across the concept of “killing your darlings.” It’s inevitable that as an artist you will also eventually create something that you love dearly but that doesn’t work in the grand scheme of your story or is at best self indulgent. And then you will have to kill it. Dead. But like most things it’s a hell of a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.
Before I started writing seriously—that is, before I started writing on a regular basis instead of, say, once a year—I used to think that revision meant moving words around on the page. I blame poetry for this. When you are obsessed with language you cannot help but get lost in the words of a story and forget about everything else. Or at least, that’s been my experience. I could easily spend weeks doing nothing but fixate on the words of a story, trying to get the sound and the rhythm just right. You know that Hemingway quote, the one where he talks about rewriting the end of a book 39 times just to get the words right? That is me. I will do things like that until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore.
Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it does pose a huge problem for me at a certain stage of the writing process because, let’s face it, if that ending doesn’t make sense/doesn’t fit with the rest of the story or what have you, why waste all that time and energy on fixing the words when there is obviously a greater problem there? It doesn’t matter how pretty the words are. If the structure is falling apart sooner or later the story will crumble. And the danger of fixating solely on language is that it can blind you to the larger, overarching problems. After all, it’s much easier to change the words than it is to rework the story itself. (Suddenly, I find myself wondering if some writers are better at focusing on big picture stuff than others).
So that is what has been happening to me in the past few weeks. I was busy working on backstory. I was all set to write a bunch of new backstory scenes. I’d done all this work sketching out characters and setting. And then I realized it just didn’t make sense. The backstory was too complicated. It was like I had two character/plot arcs instead of one (Tim, if you’re reading this you were absolutely right) and I couldn’t think of any logical reason why it should be that way other than the fact that I wanted it to be that way. Why, you ask? Because there were all these cool magical scenes I wanted to have in there that I would probably have to cut because they just wouldn’t work if I picked one of those arcs and stuck with it. In other words, I really really really didn’t want to have to kill any of my darlings.
It’s a difficult thing to do, cutting scenes or characters you love, and I think because I often start a story with a concept and a bunch of cool images in mind, instead of a character, it’s much harder for me to do. Those images might be the reason I started the story. Or maybe they’re just really cool, magical scenes that I hate to let go of. But when you keep things just because you like them even though they don’t fit into the story or make sense you really do yourself a disservice and you’re probably giving yourself more work in the long run.
Anyway, in terms of my own work I’ve merged the two arcs (before, I had an arc when my protagonist was a child and one when she’s a teenager. Now everything takes place when she’s a teen.), I moved a bunch of the backstory up in time so those events are more recent, and scrapped most of what I’d written, though it’s still floating around in my head. I think it works better now. It still needs a lot of tweaking, but it feels more like a story than a bunch of disconnected events. And I’m desperately trying to focus more on the overall structure and keep from obsessing about those damn words! But even now I do ocasionally hear that siren call: maybe I can fit this scene in here, if I change it just a little, maybe I won’t have to kill it, please please please…
Okay, okay! So I was supposed to post something once a week. But I had this crazy idea to scrap most of what I had written of my novel and start over again so I’m currently in panic-and-chain-myself-to-the-computer mode. Therefore a real post will have to wait. I will try to actually write something useful when I’m done killing my darlings. I will even try to give you all the gory details so you can gasp in horror with me or something. And I will, of course, try to keep myself from wallowing in despair.
Your humble blogger.
I spent most of last semester alternating every other chapter of my novel between the past (backstory) and the present (the actual story, I guess) and in the process lost any semblance of logic. Characters would do things for no particular reason I could think of other than that I didn’t know what else to have them do. Or they would become my plot bitches and do really stupid, nonsensical things just to further the plot I wanted the novel to have. I have a problem with that in particular. So I finally decided to put my foot down and rearrange everything in chronological order.
There’s a lot of stuff that happens to my protagonist in the past that affects the present day story and it’s been phenomenally helpful to explore that past, but I think—for me, at least—writing the draft chronologically is the way to go. Otherwise it’s too easy to get lost in chains of events or actions that don’t make sense. What amuses me is that I had to do the same thing with the last novel I was working on. I kept trying to write from whenever the “actual” story was supposed to start and just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, so I ended up writing the protagonists’ stories from their birth to the present day. So maybe this is just my writing process. Maybe I just need to write out my characters’ pasts before I can get anywhere. It does make me wonder about non-linear novels in general, though. Do most people write them chronologically and then make them non-linear in revision? Or do other writers have a greater capacity for organizing things in their heads than I do? I don’t know.
The thing I worry about is (once I have the whole draft written out) trying to figure out how to work that backstory into the rest of the story. Do I tell the whole story in chronological order? But then how would it fit into the genre of YA? Are there any YA books that start with the protagonist as a young child and then work their way up through adolescence? If I don’t keep it in chronological order, then do I go back to alternating every other chapter between the past and the present? Do I alternate in chronological order or mix up the flashbacks so that they come up at relevant times? One of my classmates in my workshop this residency suggested I could use a particular image to tie chapters together. So for example, a key might show up in the flashback and then reappear in the present day scene. I love that idea and I think I’ll definitely have to try it once I have the whole draft written and can reorganize it. But for now I’m trying not to stress out and just focus on writing the draft in whatever way I need to write it. Still, I think it’s interesting to ponder these questions…and perhaps interesting to know that a novel can be written in one way, but ultimately structured in a completely different way.
I have returned at last from the frozen wasteland that is Vermont and its below freezing weather ready to launch into my fourth (and final!) semester at VCFA. *Weeps* I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Fourth semester is when things get serious. We have to complete a publication worthy manuscript of at least 75 pages and prepare the lecture that we will give our final residency. After hearing the graduating students read their work this january and attending a number of fascinating lectures I’m feeling slightly intimidated. I have never written/given a lecture in my life. I don’t even have a completed draft of a novel (although most of us fourth semesters don’t either, so I really shouldn’t worry about that). Still, I get the sense that I really need to go deeper than I ever have before this semester and I’m excited to see what I come up with.
So with all that said, here is what I’ll be focusing on this semester:
The novel: I’m going to continue working on the novel I’ve been writing the past two semesters and right now I’m trying to cement as much of the backstory as I can. I also plan on drawing maps of all the important locations real and fantastical, a floor plan of the house so I don’t get lost, and descriptions of all the important places events unfold. I think I may even break out my sketchbook and draw *gasp*. I am super excited about this. I’m also going to spend some time focusing on all my main characters so I can get a better sense of who they are and what they want. I really struggle with this sort of thing, so I’ve got a bunch of character worksheet templates I’m going to fill out to get me thinking and I may sit down and interview my characters again.
The reading/research: Since my novel is about a family of Iberian (Spanish) origin and the fantastical elements draw on Spanish folklore (duende) I’m going to focus my reading on the culture and history of Spain. I’ve found very few YA or MG books actually set in Spain or dealing with Spanish American families from Spain so I’m probably going to be reading a number of adult books by Spanish authors. The exciting part of this is that many of these books I can’t find in English so I get to read them in Spanish. Yes, that counts! I’m also going to explore magic realism and other sorts of fantastical genre-bending books. And finally I’m hoping to read more books about non-anglo american characters because I think there are some aspects to the immigrant/“outsider” perspective that are universal.
The lecture: And finally, for my lecture I’ll be doing something on characterization. Right now I’m not sure how broad or narrow my lecture should be because I’m fascinated by the different tools various writers use for characterization (character collages, interviews, worksheets, free writing, etc), but I only have 45 minutes to talk about this and I don’t know if it would be more helpful to give a broad overview of various techniques or just focus on one or two. So I guess we’ll see how that goes.
I’m going to be working with Julie Larios (so exciting!) this semester so I’m hoping I’ll get to do some poetry, too. I’ve been neglecting my poor poetry! As for this blog, I’m going to really try this time to post something once a week, so I’ll probably be going more into depth on some of this stuff in the next few months. That’s all for now. If any one has any book suggestions or character development techniques I’d love to hear them 🙂
Tomorrow I fly off to Vermont for my fourth residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts! I can’t believe it! This will be my last semester and then I graduate in July. And it has gone by so fast! Just a year and a half ago I thought: two years? That’s going to take forever! Apparently time flies when you’re working your butt off and having fun.
I’m also trying to mentally prepare myself for working on my creative thesis (which will probably be the YA novel I’ve been working on the past two semesters) and my graduate lecture (which is very up in the air at the moment but might involve characterization and how writers create compelling characters). In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying lectures and workshops and (maybe?) some snow 🙂 So I will leave you in the capable hands of Anne Lamott who has some pretty clever things to say about finding more time to write: