Don’t Rush the Story: Remain in the Mystery with Your Characters

when writing a character...hemingwayWhen I trained to become a counselor, we were taught to enter the therapy room and check our emotional baggage at the door by visualizing the placement of a suitcase filled with ‘our stuff’ high on a shelf for the duration of the session. We were asked to come in clear-headed, open to receive, and instructed to create a safe place for our client. I learned to do that with all my clients, who walked in with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and opinions.

I paid attention to the reasons why and how the client reacted to ‘stuff’ in the counseling sessions, while paying close attention to their body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, and what they chose to share or not share. It was a privilege to sit with clients and walk by their sides as they took their journeys, and I was conscious to never rush them along or lead the sessions. I found that with enough patience, trust was built, and the sessions progressed…but only as far as they wanted to go at a particular time.

While writing my first novel, ‘A Decent Woman’, I had a light bulb moment—I realized it was important to offer the characters in my stories the same courtesy, support, and patient attention I’d paid my counseling clients.

With the first novel, I wrote a brief outline and filled out 3×5 index cards for each character, with their physical description, age, and a bit about their personalities. I didn’t write a detailed synopsis or in-depth character study until my second editor asked me to rewrite several chapters and add two chapters to the draft manuscript. With my work in progress, I followed the same technique: I outlined the story, wrote a quick character study of each character, but I didn’t write a long synopsis until I’d written ten chapters; certainly much earlier than with book one. Then I wrote an eight-page synopsis that grew to ten pages the following week. The week after that, I tackled the new outline and believe me, the character studies of each character grew immensely. I gave them a proper life. A waste of writing time; a cock-eyed approach? Not for many writers. Let me explain.

Creating characters for a work of fiction is a fascinating process. I might have an idea of who they are, what their jobs are, and what they look like physically, but initially I don’t know how they’ll react to the other characters in the story, or how they’ll fare in the complicated, complex world I have built for them. Are they strong-willed, jealous-types, haughty and arrogant, or empathic and kind-hearted? Are they good listeners, deep thinkers, or shallow individuals who can’t be counted on in a pinch? A character’s deeper, more personal qualities aren’t always apparent until I begin writing the story. Sometimes, more time and digging are required to really know my character inside out.

Let me give you an example. You’ve been introduced to a new neighbor, and soon you  discover many shared experiences. The friendship develops quicker than most of the friendships in your life. She seems to be the ying to your yang. Then, a blizzard paralyzes your town with over 35 inches of snow. It’s impossible to shovel the snow fast enough, and hard as you may try, there is nowhere to put the snow. You and new neighbor commiserate with each other, and make plans for coffee as soon as the snow melts.

A day later, you’re sitting at your kitchen table and notice that you can’t see out the bay window for the mountain of snow in front of it. You step outside and catch new neighbor shoveling snow as fast as she can…and she’s heaving the white stuff into your small front yard. You’re stunned beyond belief. Why would she do that? You struggle to understand her actions, which are not only rude, but unconscionable. You would have never done that to her…not to anyone. Who is this woman? Who is she, indeed? You thought you knew her.

This example is similar to writing a new character—we don’t always know a character well enough when we begin writing, and even if we do think we’ve ‘pegged’ them at the start, new, interesting facts can develop. Some facts might be downright distasteful or wonderfully surprising and both can be helpful to the story.

As a writer, I strive to honor each of my characters and their story with my undivided time, attention, and patience. My goal is to create well-fleshed out, complex characters, but I can’t do that if I accept what is first apparent about a character. If I don’t dig deeper into the who, why, how, where, and backstory, of a character, the story will seem flat and uninteresting.

I dig deeper by creating mini bios for each main character, including where they were born, who raised them, a bit about their childhood, and their personalities traits. I write a detailed physical description of each character, and since I’m a visual person, I often find photographs to accompany the descriptions from magazines and the Internet. I find unique mannerisms, dislikes and likes: what makes them tick, and I jot down their strengths and weaknesses as that helps with natural dialogue, inner conflicts, and the resolutions, if any.

This technique works for me, in addition to walking side by side and getting to know my characters while writing a few chapters to get comfortable. I don’t rush this process. After that, I’m ready to tell their story from their unique perspective, which I can’t know about without actually writing.

You may have a different technique for creating interesting, memorable characters, and in that case, vive la différence!

Happy writing to you!

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire her stories.

‘A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani, and in the soon-to-be released anthology, Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society, edited by Allie Burke. Eleanor is a proud member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, The National Association of Professional Women, and the Historical Novel Society. She is a contributing writer at Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When not writing, she loves facilitating creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

Eleanor adores her two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, ‘The Lament of Sister Maria Immaculata’, and a collection of short stories.

 

 

When Is It Okay to Lose Your Sh#t?

I am a writer and watcher of human behavior: odd, interesting, strange, and bizarre behavior do it for me. If you’re a writer and you’re not watching people and taking notes, you should be. Usually I can’t make up the stuff I see or hear, and quite often, I’m left with a dropped jaw and raised eyebrows, but I’m fascinated all the same. Odd manerisms; interesting turns of phrases; strange or irrational behavior, facial ticks and expressions; and bizarre conversations or get ups, make their way into my novels and short stories, and make for interesting characters. I like to know what makes people tick. Pay attention; it’s all good stuff for a writer.

Why do people do what they do?

This year, a British author by the name of Richard Brittain tracked down a Scottish girl who’d written a negative review of his self-published novel, and proceeded to crack a bottle of wine on her head.

Here’s how Gawker.com described his actions. “Brittain, incensed at the one-star review, apparently tracked down Rolland’s Facebook page, discovering that she lived in Scotland and worked at an Asda supermarket. He allegedly traveled 500 miles from London and found her at the store, crouching to stock a low shelf of cereal boxes. He hit her from behind with a full bottle of wine, leaving her unconscious and with a gash on her head.”

Wow. The article went on to say that Richard Brittain had received media coverage and the attention he’d probably craved his whole life. I wonder if he’s still writing?

Next up is the bizarre turn of events at the Miss Amazonas 2015 beauty competition. In the YouTube video I watched, the Brazilian beauty pageant first runner-up, Miss Sheislane Hayalla, hugged the winner, Miss Carolina Toledo, and seconds later, Hayalla violently ripped the crown off the newly crowned Miss Amazonas’ head before throwing the crown to the floor and storming off the stage. Damn. Talk about epic public freakouts and losing your shit.

Sheislane Hayalla claimed that her rival, Carolina Toledo, had bought her Miss Amazonas title, and Hayalla cried foul play during several interviews on Brazilian television. Lots of publicity for Miss Hayalla, but it’s not clear if she retained her runner up crown, or whether there was an investigation into the allegation. Frankly, I lost interest.

Have I ever lost my usually calm composure and freaked out publicly? Sure, I’m human. One doozy of an outburst was directed at my ex-husband during the early days of our marital separation (which felt great!), and the next was due to erupt just before Christmas Day this year, aimed at my new next door neighbor, who was in the habit of leaving her dog home alone for hours and hours. And no, she doesn’t work outside the home. The instant this woman left the house to do whatever she was doing, her large Golden Retreiver, who suffers from severe and extreme separation anxiety (I don’t know what my neighbor suffers from), immediately began howling and barking for hours on end until her owner returned home. And I mean hours. I tried loud music to drown out the noise (which isn’t conducive to a good writing session), and even tried hunting ear plugs, but I could still hear the lonely pup’s pathetic howls. I work from home and was about to lose my mind when my neighbor began leaving the house in the evenings, which is my favorite time to write. I don’t understand how the dog didn’t lose her voice, completely.

Anne Lamott quote about people behaving better to writers

I have a Chihuahua, who luckily isn’t a yappy barker, except when someone knocks at my door, which is normal. If my neighbor’s dog did that, I’d be okay with it, but that’s not the case. For months, I politely voiced my concerns and my neighbor agreed–her dog was a pain in the butt. She admitted she’d heard her dog’s barks down the street as she’d driven away several times. Nice. Later, I wrote two notes asking my neighbor to please do something about her dog’s incessant barking and howling as I couldn’t get any work done. One day she saw me outside and yelled, “Get over it! She barks! Live with it!” Live with it? I don’t think so. After several calls to Department of Animal Control, I discovered there are noise ordinances in my city. A man from Animal Control came out and paid my neighbor a visit. My writing days are peaceful and quiet once again, and I hope it remains that way long into the new year!

It’s hard to know what my neighbor’s problem was with her dog, and why she didn’t seem to care about her neighbor’s frazzled nerves. But she can be sure of one thing–she’ll make it into one of my novels and she won’t be the heroine either. I can make her fictional life a living hell. That is one way an author can ‘pay it forward’ for rude behavior. Demure smile. Use it all, folks.

when writing a character...hemingway

 

 

 

 

Never wrong a writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Holidays to you and my best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society, and she is a contributing writer for Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Book clubs across the United States have enjoyed A Decent Woman. Eleanor is featured in the newly published anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor is the mother of two wonderful adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel and a collection of short stories.

http://amzn.to/1kzKdGq

Who’s Telling This Story and Other Questions

I named my author blog, The Writing Life, for good reason–I love writing about my writing journey with its’ challenges, joys, and the confusing world of writing, marketing and publishing. Yes, the writing life can be confusing, and last week, I was confused in a big way with my second book, my work-in-progress.

These are the type of questions that kept coming to mind. Perhaps you can relate to the writerly predicament I found myself in.

What should you do when your protagonist and secondary character begin vying for first place in a story–the protagonist seat–and you’re swaying toward the secondary character? And then back to the main character you’ve chosen. Do you stick with your initial storyline, keeping it as is or do you take this new development seriously? You’ve already worked so hard on the story, dear writer. The manuscript might be finished, or you might be a third of the way through, but still!

Should your characters switch places, which will undoubtedly mean a rewrite and most probably, a bit more research, or do you stubbornly hold your ground in favor of the original story? You know this character musical chairs game will mean a lot more work on your part. Is this a wise move worthy of the time you’ve already spent on the story?

YES! Take the nagging feelings seriously. Here’s what happened to me last week.

I’d written nearly twenty chapters of my work-in-progress when my muse whispered, “Whose story is this?” I quickly recognized the situation. Oh, no. After I finished my very first manuscript in 2006, the second leading lady, ‘spoke’ loud and clear–clear enough for me to stop and take her seriously. I couldn’t deny she’d become the more interesting character to write as she was a feisty, wise, complicated older woman with a mysterious, tumultuous past versus a beautiful, young widow and mother with limited life experience.

Despite realizing the enormity of the task ahead–rewriting my story and adding new chapters–I forged ahead. It was the right move for me. Yes, it required many months of rewrites and writing new chapters, but I listened to my characters and my inner voice, who pointed to Ana, my secondary character. She’d been the leading lady all along, with Serafina playing the role as Ana’s long-time, loyal friend and supporter.

This past weekend, I gave this recurring theme (and nagging throughts) a good long look. I’d outlined book #2; thought the storyline out from beginning to end; I’d done a substancial amount of research; I understand my characters and their roles in the story; and I have a good story with unique, complex characters in a unique and complex setting. Okay, done. I was very pleased with the story and felt pretty confident in my main character’s ability to pull the story off. Yet I still had a nagging suspicion that wouldn’t let go–the supporting lady, also called the supporting protagonist, was speaking louder than the protagonist–was it her story? Are you kidding me? Again? All that writing and research down the drain!

Each character is important and integral to the story. I had to remind myself:

The protagonist is the main character and the principal figure in a literary work. It is her story to tell because it’s about her and her goal. The secondary characters must be chosen carefully and should contribute to the story and support the protagonist in her goal. The antagonist is equally as important as the protagonist as she will go against the protagonist at every step, causing the leading lady to act, suffer, make mistakes, work things out (or not), and help move the story forward. If a minor character doesn’t support the protagonist, it might be necessary to cut them from the story.

Then, I wrote to my mentor, master-storyteller Jack Remick, who graciously responded to my email full of confusion. He replied, “It’s good to be in chaos at this stage of the story. First question, of course, is: whose story is it? Keep going. You’ll solve the problems now that you’re worrying about them.” He was right. It was a great reminder. I’d lost the plot with so many characters in my head! (Check out Jack and Bob’s superb writing blog – bobandjackswritingblog.com)

So, the former protagonist in my WIP will have her own book on down the line. Her story is already firm in my mind, and I’ve done most of the research. I’ve put her aside for now. Who did I choose as my leading lady for book #2? The secondary character. She is complex and  vulnerable, intelligent and clueless, and at times, she’s haughty. She is perfectly flawed.

I immediately felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders when I’d decided. Once again, I’m writing with a huge smile on my face. It’s going to be an awesome story, now that I know whose story it is to tell. I think the former protagonist is somewhat relieved, as she was out of her element in this particular story. She was just waiting for me to realize what she already knew. Yes, writers speak to their characters and they answer us!

Sometimes you must get completely lost, almost in a state of chaos, to find your way. Writing good stories is like that: one foot in front of another, paying attention to the shady detours and dark corners which just might lead you to Shangri-La.

Happy writing to you!

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

 

elliePuerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, and book clubs in many states have enjoyed the book. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.