I’ve been kind of busy the last month or so and my writing plan has suffered a little. But I really have still been working – I promise!
I finished my scene book that, while somewhat helpful, was mostly really obvious. There was some really good advice about scene structure and flow that I think will be helpful for revision, but I can’t imagine trying to purposely write with all these little rules in mind. A bit stifling, I would think. There was even a pedantic bit at the end that listed all different ways to begin and end a scene and the exercises suggested that you try each one. Really?
I’ve just started another one, though, that I think will be really helpful. It’s called “Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction” by Jeff Gerke. His basic premise is that writers are either “plot-first” or “character-first” writers. “Plot-first” writers have solid, exciting plots and 2-dimentional, poorly developed characters whereas “character-first” writers have riveting, deeply moving characters who don’t do anything. To me, this seems like the perfect distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. His idea is that you can use the tools of plot to create better characters and vice versa, depending on where your strengths lie.
I definitely connect with this distinction and I’ve found myself automatically going through my list of favorite books in my head and deciding which ones are which. It quickly became obvious that I prefer reading (and re-reading) plot-first books. And with some brief introspection I am a plot-first writer. My characters aren’t completely two-dimensional, but they certainly aren’t as well developed as they could be.
Gerke starts the character development section of his book with idea that a character should be as close to a real person as you can get. Thus, he begins with psychology – he uses the Myers-Briggs personality profile method to identify his character’s “core” personality and then builds them up in terms of appearance, background, education, etc. It seems so obvious… When I started my master’s degree, one of the first things we did was a personality test called “True Colors”. This test divided people into four colors – Gold is the responsible civil-servant type, orange is fun-loving, blue is emotional and empathetic, and green is intellectual and logical (guess which one(s) I am?). The point for us was to identify what you were and then how you might interact with your multi-colored students. The most useful part for me was that the color profiles discussed not just how each color thought and behaved, but how each color could be taken to excess: greens can become condescending, blues can become emotional wrecks, golds can become officious and bossy, and oranges become irresponsible and flighty. So, if I know that my character is green and blue, not only can I predict how she will react in a normal situation, I can predict how she will act in duress – how she can be pushed from sympathetic to hateful. I can then do that on purpose or be aware of it and keep her from going so far that my audience won’t respond to her anymore.
The Myers-Briggs is a more detailed version (I think my husband and I used this system during our pre-marriage counseling) of the above. Gerke includes a pared-down synopsis of the 16 major types and recommends identifying one of these 16 types for each major character as a first step. I did this for my main characters and was surprised at how internally consistent they were with each other – for example, my main character and her father are very similar but the one major difference according to this system makes for a significant difference in personality. I was also gratified to discover that none of my main characters were the same type as me – or my husband. Gerke says that often plot-first writers make all the characters based on themselves without realizing it – I am glad to have avoided that!
Gerke goes on to put the characters through a worksheet of “set-dressing” exercises to flesh them out. I think that this process is valuable but it also seems a bit cumbersome. He recommends doing exhaustive character sketches prior to writing (which I can’t do as I’ve already finished the book). However, I think I could do a scaled-down version of his process and then use it for revision. And I can see it being a good starting place for future projects. Maybe. And I was pleased that as I read through his development steps, I could quickly answer most of his questions about my main characters. So maybe I did a better job with them that I initially thought! But I know that I need to make my two main characters more sympathetic, so maybe this will help. I also need to re-name my narrator, which is only peripherally related.
Anyway, I will be starting my 4-week workshop on synopses and query letters a week from Monday and I’ve very excited about that. I have also found several talks at the library and at the bi-monthly meetings of a local writing group that I plan on attending. I also decided to find some writing contests to enter. Mostly I’m finding short story competitions, so I am going to try my hand at that genre – luckily I had a cool dream a few months ago that should make an interesting short story. I have found a few full novel contests so far, but I need to do my re-write first. I’m looking at it as motivation since these contests have deadlines!