Monday, November 07, 2005

Day 7: Desperately seeking someone

After officially catching up with word-count last night (woo-hoo!), today I had a thorny question in mind as I pounded out my daily dose of a thousand or so words: Where in the heck is this story going, and why doesn't my protagonist get out and mingle more?

Last year's So Called Novel was an assortment of loosely connected short stories set in a small town not unlike my own. This year's So Called Novel is my attempt to have an actual story line: a novel-length plot with a beginning, middle, and end.

But whereas last year's short story format allowed me to experiment with lots of different characters, dialogue among those characters, and more sex scenes than I care to admit (with sex scenes, I discovered, being an easy way to crank out lots of wretched but perfectly word-countable prose), the protagonist of this year's novel Doesn't Play Well With Others. It's not that she's unpleasant or antisocial...she just spends far too much time inside her house thinking.

By the 10,000 word mark, Alexa had interacted with exactly three people--her upstairs tenant, a fireman who came in the first chapter to evacuate her from her flooded house, and an across the street neighbor who showed up (thankfully!) out of the blue to share some tea and conversation. Apart from that entirely un-planned dialogue between Alexa and her across-the-street neighbor, which I wrote as a "fudge" because I didn't know what came next in the story and thus conveniently "allowed" Alexa's doorbell to ring as a stalling manuever, Alexa has spoken approximately two sentences in the course of the novel: approximately one to her upstairs tenant, and approximately one to that fireman.

So, today I sat down with a purpose: Alexa needs to get out of her house, and she needs to meet someone. Although I'm not sure how a love interest--or a failed love interest, or a possible-but-unrequited love interest, or a possible-love-interest who turns into a psycho-stalker--fits into the larger framework of my envisioned story line, I can't go on much longer having Alexa stay at home and read. So right now, in the middle of chapter two, Alexa's walked to the public library, where we both (she and I) are about to meet a Mysterious Stranger who doesn't yet have a name, much less an established role in the story.

So, what's your experience with fictional characters? At what point of your writing process (if ever) do they take on personalities of their own? And what sort of "scenes" do you find the easiest to write for your characters: dialogue? sex scenes? knock-down, drag-out fight scenes?
Word-count: 11,130

Last line: Walking into her usual reading room, where two long wooden tables with goose-necked reading lamps were circled by a handful of comfortable upholstered chairs, each pointed toward a window overlooking one of Winston's most picturesque residential streets, Alexa had nearly settled into her accustomed place at one of the tables when she saw she wasn't alone, a lone brown-haired man in khakis and a black turtleneck sitting with a stack of books at the next table.


At 11/07/2005 8:12 PM, Anonymous maria said...

I am sorry I can't do NaNoWriMo this year, but I can tell you that with my recent experiences with screenwriting, I am realizing that nothing is easy to write for your characters (dialogue or sex or fight scenes) until you have a handle on the "character" of your characters -- and until you know their stories.

I tried this approach already, working hard on figuring out what kind of personalities my characters have, and once I had a grasp of their basic fears, hopes, and other motivating forces, as well as a bit of their histories, it was easier to see what kind of actions they would choose in different situations ... as well as what they would say.

For example, if Alexa, your character "doesn't play well with others," why would she open the door to a neighbor and then proceed to have tea and conversation with that neighbor?

Dialogue, strange as it sounds, is one of the last things I write in my short film scripts. Until I know the story, I don't even have my characters speak....

At 11/07/2005 8:53 PM, Blogger Lorianne said...

I think I had an easier time with last year's characters because I was working with short stories, which I find easier to write than novel-length fiction. With a story, you don't need as much back-story, just enough verisimilitude to capture a *moment* in a person's life.

This year, I admittedly have NO IDEA what makes Alexa, my protagonist, tick...and I didn't sketch out any other characters for her to interact with, so I'm having to make them up on the fly. In retrospect, I "should" have sketched out some character profiles before beginning...but since I didn't know better, I just started writing.

Ultimately, this all is a great learning experience since I consider myself to be more of an essayist than a writer of fictions. It's kind of interesting trying to get "into" the mind of a novelist, where you have to make things up rather than describing what "is."

At 11/08/2005 4:10 PM, Blogger Diana said...

I can't go on much longer having Alexa stay at home and read.

This made me laugh out loud. Mine has only read once, in the opening (Rilke), but she tends to muse too much. She just sits around thinking about her life. Weird.

At 11/08/2005 6:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a stitch! I love this!

Too funny! I never realized how much writing fiction is like a chess game!

I think finding a mate for Alexa would be a good thing; maybe some checks in the mailbox would help as well...she could walk to the post office and strike up a conversation with a man standing next to her mailbox; (as long as he isn't wearing a crown, she should be okay) There is not a doubt (here) that you can/could easily turn your essayist talent into a good novel!

I will remain ... here on out... a silent cheerleader in the peanut gallery.

At 11/08/2005 6:39 PM, Blogger Devon Ellington said...

I tend to work from character rather than plot. The characters "tell" me their story as we go along, and reveal themselves as we write the story. They come to me with fully formed personalities, which they continue to reveal throughout the process. This happens whether I outline or whehter I blank page.

I just go with it. Fighting it casues too many problems.

What I DON"T do is sit and do pages of character work ahead of time. The characters and I both hate it. And that reflects in the work.

At 11/09/2005 7:12 AM, Blogger Lorianne said...

Actually, Diana, my "Alexa" hasn't done much reading in the novel itself...but since she's a stay-at-home hermit who doesn't seem to venture out of her house much, the story's been pretty slow-going so far. But we'll see what happens now that she's met a younger man... :-)

Anonymous, last year's So-Called NaNo novel was a collection of short stories, each loosely based on a character I "borrowed" from the newspaper or a person I saw around town, the equivalent of going to the post office & writing about the man standing next to you! I think that works quite well for me and my preferred writing style...this novel-length story thing is something of a stretch for me, but that's the whole point of NaNo, I guess. :-)

Devon, there was a point in last year's NaNo novel when the characters took on a life of their own, but it was relatively late in the narrative. I seem to "warm slowly" to characters, so I guess some initial word-slogging during the "getting to know you" phase is inevitable, at least for me.


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