Are your characters your own? (Writing Tip No. 5)

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

Are your characters your own? (Writing Tip No. 5)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Son of a bitch, Langston, how the hell should I know? My whole life has been about pursuing the ever-elusive literary peach. I think that in recent months I have actually crawled much closer to the answer than ever before. But that still leaves me wilting here, contemplating inspirations. I’ve been writing like a freshly born madman for weeks. Some of it has been solid but most of it has been, um, not. I figure that’s okay because it is better to have written and lost than to not have written at all. Can I share a secret with you?

Yesterday, as my fingers were tapping away at some nonsensical jargon, I happened upon a new character. He just popped up unawares, completely out of the blue. He said, “Oh hello, I am in your story now.” What could I do but welcome him with open arms? Sometimes, as writers, we really have no choice in the matter. At any rate, he seems to be a nice man. He is an artist. He’s not well known and I doubt he ever will be but he has passion and he has style and (let’s not hold this against him, please!) he is French.

His name is Gustav Plonchet and if you steal him from me I swear I will hunt you down and I will murder your entire hard drive while you are sleeping! But here is the funny thing… I know very little of the art world. Truth be told, I wish I knew much more. But as I was writing this scene and Gustav, an amateur painter on the rise, forced himself upon me from virtually out of nowhere (as far as I could ascertain), I let him introduce himself for a bit before something inside me said, “What kind of a name is this?” I knew that he was 100% a figment of my imagination but his moniker sounded real. I actually believed that such a man could exist. His name, to me, sounded as if he was familiar, as if I may have met him on the street 8 or 15 years prior. Naturally, I had to Google him.

No!!

Listen – This is wrong. The rest of this story is extremely coherent and circumstantial. I regret not the fact that I took some time to research my own imaginary character; what I do regret, however, is that I took the time to research him mid-flow. I tweeted about this recently when I was busy thinking unrelated thoughts: Writing is hard. Distractions are easy. Make like a hard-at-work poet and re-verse it.

In a nutshell, don’t get distracted! No matter what! This is such hard advice to follow. Look at me! I’m proof. I am as addicted to the internerd as the next person. In everyday life, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But while you are writing, you should remain, as much as you possibly can, completely and utterly within yourself. Let your story and your characters be your guide. If, by some chance, you feel an irresistible urge to jump on the world wide whatever and go star gazing for nonsense, stow it away for some other day. It’s only going to lead you astray.

You understand.

What is the moral of the story? Here it is: Right smack in the middle of my scene, just after I had introduced this new character I called Gustav Plochet—I had given him a face and a height and a mustache and a few other idiosyncrasies—I decided to put down my pen (ie. minimize MS Word) and, just for shits and giggles, Google him. My train of thought was broken, the scene was broken, and I was taken out of it. In those regards, all was awry. HOWEVER… as it turns out, when I googled “Gustav Plonchet” the aliens in the machine asked me if I meant “Gustave Planche?” Ok, sure why not? So I clicked on that dude’s name and lo and effing behold… guess what? Jean Baptiste Gustave Planche was a literary and art critic in France during the early 19th century. Of course this is absolutely fascinating to me and I have to find out as much about this guy as I possibly can so I can inject part of him into my character. But as I’m doing this, as I’m learning about the real Jean Baptiste Gustave Planche, more and more time is going by and I’m starting to veer further and further away from whoever my own Gustav Plonchet was supposed to be! And the longer I am away from my story, the more I am learning about history—which is good! but not good for storytelling.

All good sense aside though, how cool is it that my Gustav is almost a real dude from like… history? Ha! Anyway, I thought that was pretty righteous. Who knows if, on some level, I knew that and my brain pulled it up as I was just type type typing away. Does it matter? I guess the point is that since all this happened, I have yet to go back to that scene. And that’s partially because I’m afraid that the real Gustave Planche may become my Gustav Plonchet. And is that ok? It’s kind of a mindfuck.

Long story short: save the internerd for the after party.

Write now. Write well. Write on.

-LW

Great books come from okay first drafts (Writing Tip No. 4)

I haven’t read a good book in awhile. I’m listening to Stephen King’s latest “11/22/63″ on my long commute to work every day. Does that count? I’ve just been so busy setting up my web site for my freelance writing/editorial business that may or may not be taking off soon. I’m also running like a madman (I’m training for a marathon), and most importantly, I’m writing my YA book. I gave myself a deadline to have the rough draft finished by March 10 in order to apply for a Work-In-Progress Grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) before the deadline. My current writing goal for this is to put down 2,000 words a day. I’m about 8,000 words behind since I set my goal a couple weeks ago. The words keep piling up day after day! It’s an insane amount of work to slam out in a very short amount of time that rivals the 1,666 words a day challenge of NaNoWriMo each November. I tried NaNoWriMo twice before. I got close both times. About halfway. That’s close, right?

I’m not too worried about the daily writing goal. I wish that my only job was writing. I’ll bet Stephen King laughs in the face of 2,000 words/day. Have you seen the hardcover version of “11/22/63″? You could kill a brontosaurus with it! That is, if you found some kind of rabbit hole in the back of a small town diner, stepped into it, went back in time carrying King’s latest novel, blew past the assassination of JFK all the way to the mesozoic, met a brontosaurs, raised the book and… oh my God, how could you do that? They’re so cute! What’s wrong with you? Gosh.

You may be wondering: how much of my new YA novel is actually good? Well… I’d say about half of it. That’s pretty good! When you’re writing a rough draft, I don’t think you should necessarily put too much emphasis on quality. Did he really just say that? Listen, if your first draft makes you want to puke and die, you might want to reconsider a few plot points. I’m not saying you should strive toward mediocrity (although look at how successful Stephenie Meyer is – oh snap!), but don’t dwell on making it perfect the first time out of the gates either. For me, a first draft is just about getting it down, pouring it out, and moving through the story. Occasionally, I do find myself editing a certain paragraph over and over again. When that happens I try my best to pull away from it, maybe highlight it first, save some notes on it for later. But move along, son. Nothing to see here.

It’s a good philosophy. Works for me, anyway. I once read an interview Tom Robbins (one of my favorite writers, but he hasn’t written anything in awhile has he? What’s up with that?). In the interview, Robbins said that when he writes, he has a general idea of where his story is going to go but he perfects every single sentence in the novel one by one. He writes the opening line, stares at it, re-writes it, re-writes-it, tweaks it, re-writes it again, makes it amazing, then moves on to his second sentence. He works this way through his entire book! I could never do that. I gotta just write, man. Robbins’ way seems like it would give me an ulcer by Chapter Two. But then again, read his opening line to Another Roadside Attraction: The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.

The man may be on to something.