Saturday, January 29, 2011

Does that character NEED to be there?

I mentioned before that while I was in Vermont, I had the first 20 pages of my brand-new shiny WIP workshopped. I didn't mention that I also had one of the grad assistants, a published middle-grade author, take a look at it. She offered me some excellent feedback, particularly because I was able to tell her exactly what I was most concerned about in the piece and ask if this or that was working.

There is one character in my new project that I had particular reservations about. The character is sort of an antagonist to my main character, and I was afraid that by her very nature she would offend and alienate an entire group of people, thus making those readers hate me, my book, and any subsequent book I would publish (dream big, readers!). The GA said that was a possibility and offered a few suggestions for how I could fix that. Then, she said something that kind of blew my mind:

"But I you even need this character at all?"

I have stacks of notecards on my end table outlining the plot of this book, giving character descriptions, linking emotional through-lines and explaining how the subplots interconnect. So as I sat in this teacher's lounge, the snow pummeling the ground outside the window, my mind flipped through all those cards, and I could not for the life of me think of one actual reason why I truly needed that character. She had some great one-liners, and she provided a nice thwart to my main character in the first few chapters. But in terms of the big picture, I didn't really need her. I had a few plans for her, but ultimately, the book could stand just fine without her.

Sometimes it's hard to see these things in the first draft. Heck, it's hard to see these things in the second, third, or fourth draft. But it's important to ask yourself, with every single character in your book -- "Does this character NEED to be here? Is he/she essential to the plot?" This is one of the things people are referring to when they say "Kill your darlings." Related to this question, but still just as important: "Could this character's role be fulfilled by another character already on the page?"

We've all read books where there are so many minor characters it's hard to keep them straight. When the author gives each character specific, essential roles and individual character traits, it's not really a problem. Our minds can keep track of these characters because the author has done such an excellent job keeping them apart, giving them their own unique role both in the plot and in the world created within the book (Anna and the French Kiss is a recent example of a book that I think does an excellent job of giving even minor characters important roles and individual characterizations.) But when there are too many unnecessary characters, it's easy for the reader to become frustrated -- particularly if they're having to flip back pages to see who is related to whom (which I've had to do before -- lame!) 

On the flip side, there is the danger that if you only show the part of the characters that is essential to the plot, or if the characters only pop up when they're absolutely necessary, the characters will become, to borrow an (admittedly adult) term I learned at VCFA, your "plot bitches," there to serve you and only you, to move your plot forward and nothing else. Characters need to have lives of their own, and if they're popping up conveniently only to serve your plot and retreating into the shadows, waiting to strike again when the plot thickens...well, that's no good either. 

As always, writing characters that are essential the plot but still have lives outside of it is a delicate balance.

If only this writing thing were easy.

Friday, January 28, 2011

New Stories, Old Stories, And Balancing Life

I've been home from Vermont for a week now, and have read four novels, four picture books, and one non-fiction chapter book. I wrote a critical essay and worked a little on my creative work, which is a BRAND NEW story, which is kind of exciting and sort of scary.

The thing is, I never planned to try to write two novels at once. I thought I'd be totally finished with my old (I don't want to call it old...can we say original? That's nicer.) WIP by the time I started at VCFA, and the faculty and other students encourage you to start with something fresh so your mind is open to changing things around, slashing characters, etc. But my mind if pretty open to that anyway, so when one of my readers made an excellent case for redeeming a character who didn't make it to the end of the book (and, let's face it, who I was pretty much looking for an excuse to save anyway), I decided to go for it. Which left me with a new book to start for VCFA, and another round of revisions on my original WIP.

Since they're totally different stories, with different voices, I'm making it work. It's just very, very slow going. And I'm trying not to neglect my husband or my tiny dogs in the process, because even husbands and tiny dogs need love.

My key for success to working on two stories at once is to take time in between. Generally speaking, I never work on both stories on the same day, and if I do, there will be a work shift or some other long gap if time in between me opening the documents. During that time, I stop thinking about the story I was previously working on, and start getting into the head of my new character. One story is mostly a present tense POV in a contemporary setting, and the other is a past tense in a future setting, so when I switch to the future setting I think about the jargon and slang they use, examine the maps of the area I created, etc.

Before I pull up the documents, I completely shut anything related to the "wrong" story, and pull up all my images from the "right" one, so that I won't be tempted by anything unrelated to my current writing. Another thing that helps is that my original WIP is much further along, so I have to push myself to get better, more polished writing out. My new WIP is still in the drafting stages, so I can be a little messier -- though since it's for VCFA work, I want it to be cleaner than I would normally produce for a first draft. Basically, I think this is working because the two projects are so very different in terms of plot, characters, setting, and even the stage in the writing process -- if they were at all alike, I would be failing miserably.

Also, on an unrelated note, I think I need to finally cave and spend some time converting that weird, empty third bedroom into an actual office space, because right now there are library books consuming my end table, dinning table, dresser, and the bookshelf in our pseudo-office is about to topple because it's so front-loaded. Which is probably a safety hazard.

What about you? Can you balance multiple stories at once? Or do you, like my usual self, tend to have a one-track mind?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Living with Writers

First of all, today is 1/11/11! Which means it's the debut of the FABULOUS Across the Universe by Beth Revis! I haven't Book-Crush Wednesday-ed this yet because I've been kind of lazy, but the book is awesome so you should BUY IT.

With that totally important announcement out of the way, I'm going to talk about how awesome it is to live surrounded by writers. Don't get me wrong. I love my husband and my pooches (duh.) and living with them is pretty great.

But being here at VCFA, where I can turn to my roommate and say, "Hey Shayda, what did you think about this phrase in the first chapter of my WIP?" And I can get INSTANT FEEDBACK??? Pretty amazing. It's like having a live-in revision assistant! So if any of my CPs or people in my writing group (you know who you are!) or just general awesome writing bloggers want to move in, we do have two spare bedrooms available.

Tonight at residency, after a day full of lectures and a wonderful afternoon workshop where we broke into our small groups and discussed some work by fellow students (my brand-new shiny WIP is being discussed next week), we got a chance to break into our class years and do a little reading of any work we wanted. I read from the first chapter of my WIP, which I've been working on for about a year now. It was SO FUN to read from it, and I really felt good to be sharing my hard work with fellow students. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and gasped in the appropriate places, and afterwards I got some comments saying that it was "creepy" (that's a good thing) and that people liked it, so I'm really glad I decided to read.

Part of your graduating residency involves an extended reading, so I want to start practicing now. Plus I like to read. A lot.

I'm still having a great time. And I'm still exhausted. But I love this place. Even if it's cold and snowy (maybe because it's cold and snowy? Who knows!)

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Award-Winning Day

I didn't win any awards today - but I did get up close and personal with a few VCFA faculty members and visiting lecturers who have.

This morning, the YA industry was abuzz with the ALA awards, and of course the fabulous Rita Williams-Garcia won a Newbery Honor for One Crazy Summer, as well as the Coretta Scott King Book Award. Since she's on the faculty here at VCFA, she's on campus today, so when she walked into the cafeteria at lunch time, everyone cheered.

Today, the first semester students had lunch with faculty members in assigned seats, and my assigned seat was right across from Rita Williams-Garcia. She was aglow from her wins, but so, so humble about everything. Mostly we talked about books, life, and writing with the other students and faculty members at the table. Later in the evening, the entire children's MFA program cheered for her when she was introduced at the opening remarks. She blushed and waved her hands, and I realized that this is absolutely the perfect place to be when you receive such wonderful news.Who better to understand and appreciate such success than fellow writers?

At night, we had a funny, charming, and touching guest lecture from Katherine Paterson. You might know her name. She's kind of a big deal. She was also totally approachable, and talked about her career and experiences in a way that even I - an unagented, unpublished writer - could relate to.

So I didn't win any awards today. But being surrounded by such prolific authors who have achieved such astounding's pretty inspiring. And learning from them makes me feel like I have won something, after all.

(I know. I'm totally cheesy.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I'm here! (Or, Vermont is cold and hilly.)

So I'm sitting inside my dorm room on VCFA's campus (next to my roommate and one of my CPs, Shayda, yay!). We just got back from dinner our introduction and meet-up with the grad assistants (you can tell they keep us busy - I had to stop this post halfway through and come back!), where we met several other VCFA-ers.

I'll get there eventually. But let me start at the beginning.

I almost didn't make it to campus today.

For the last half week or so, I've been in Connecticut, attending the wedding of my college best friend, Lindsay. (I would include a picture here, but the only ones so far uploaded onto the Interwebs are terrible. Sorry, folks. I'm not as photogenic as my avatar would lead you to believe.) It's been snowing like crazy, and visions of the Greyhound bus I was planning to take from CT to VT crashing and burning into a snow-filled bank filled my head as I slept last night.

That didn't happen. But I did set the alarm clock wrong, and woke up 20 minutes late - which could make the difference for a bus rider.

Fortunately, everything worked out in the end, and I'm here in lovely Montpelier, soaking it all in.

Isn't it GORGEOUS?

 Full disclosure: I didn't take this picture. It was kind of gray today. This looks prettier.

I arrived at the Greyhound stop in downtown Montpelier, only a little later than scheduled, then pulled out my phone to call a cab to take me to campus. I'd heard it was a HIKE up the hill, so I thought calling a cab would be easier. 

Problem is, I didn't know the cab numbers I had were all for companies in Burlington. Which doesn't help me. When I'm in Montpelier. 
I called 411 and they connected me to a cab company in my hometown of Clearwater, FL. (How helpful!!!) So I decided to brave it and walk. I almost headed in the wrong direction, but happened to see a person walking by with luggage and asked if she went to VCFA. She didn't, but she pointed me in the right direction. She too warned me about the hill, but I assured her I would be fine.

I definitely was not fine.
I wish I had pictures of the hill. I wish I'd had the energy to stop and take a picture. It was...intense. And it kept. On. Going. In the snow. Dragging two suitcases and a giant purse behind me. Fortunately the kindnesss of strangers prevailed, and someone pulled over to offer their help. (Bonus! That person was originally from Florida - small world!) Apparently all it takes for me to get in a car with a total stranger is total and severe exhaustion. 

So now I'm settled in. I've met Shayda (yay!), and many of the other students - our year and a few other years. We range in age from early twenties to 60 and older. We're talking about our love of reading and writing and it's just wonderful.
There's an energy here already; I can feel it in the air. I can't wait to get started. 

P.S. I know it's Sunday, so I should do a link post. But it's VCFA day! So no links this week. Sorry folks, I am woefully behind on my blog-reading.
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