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February 2020

Unexpected Discoveries

10302295Hey, Writerly Women!

I once wrote a book called Unexpected Dismounts, the title of which came from a motorcycle class I was in (a class I didn't finish!). The instructor said we should always wear helmets and protective clothing in case of unexpected dismounts. Meaning, when you dump the thing without planning to -- which I did twice in the first half hour -- which explains why I counseled myself out. I was a danger to myself and others.

In the case of motorcycle riding, such a departure is never a good thing. But in writing, I think it absolutely can be. SKELI is a case in point, and if you haven't read her comments on the last post, you really should, by all means. I can't do her wording justice (the woman writes like she's spreading butter on hot toast; it's amazing), but she talks about being on a walk or a ride and seeing one of her characters out and about, doing something unplanned for (and usually on a horse ...) Back to the manuscript she goes to capture that.

If you haven't had the experience of a character suddenly darting away from you to do his or her own thing, you will if you keep writing long enough. And if you allow it to happen.

Even I, the ultimate planner, have learned to go with it when a protagonist does something I sure didn't tell her to do, or a new character appears and says, "I need to be in this story."

The first time it happened to me, I was writing the first book in the Christian Heritage Series, which is historical fiction for middle grade readers.   1936124This was early on in my career, and I was happily writing away, following my meticulous outline, when suddenly an Indian squaw (forgive my political incorrectness) showed up on my computer screen. Josiah, my main character, didn't know who she was, and frankly neither did I. I sat back in my chair and said, out loud, "Well, hello, you. Where did you come from?" She didn't answer. She just did what she was going to do in the story without saying a word. Actually she never utter a syllable; she didn't speak English. But her presence enriched the story beyond what I had imagined of. And, to echo Han Solo, I had imagined quite a bit.

After that, when somebody walked onto the page or did something "out of character" and it worked, I knew (a) to see where he or she led me and (b) that the magic was happening. You know, that indefinable thing that whispers into your story and makes it real.

I'm not saying we should sit around waiting for such people to appear. Nor, I think, is it a good idea to write reams of a character flailing around with no clear direction. We really do have to give these people a firm start -- in my experience. They'll find their freedom in the wise limitations you set. 

But when it happens -- and, again, it will -- why not go exploring? Why not observe and ask questions and indulge your curiosity? Why not trust in the mystery of being a creative person?

If you'd like to join the conversation -- and please do -- I LOVE your comments and the way you interact with each other -- will you tell us about a time when the magic of independent characters happened for you? I'll go first ...

Just this week as I've been pouring myself into my current work in progress, a judge, who is a very minor character I hadn't fleshed out at all, glared at me from the bench and said, Will you please let me say my piece? I am, after all, the freakin' JUDGE! I swallowed and said meekly, "Of course, your honor." What he had to say fixed a plot problem I'd been snagged on ever since I started this project. Oh, and I also discovered he has a ponytail. Who knew?

Can't wait to hear from you.


Nancy Rue

Time to Register!

YWW-feature-photo-2-2048x1365Hey, Writerly Women!

Registration is now open for the Young Women Writers Retreat at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs, April 17-19. If you're a writer -- or an aspiring one -- between the ages of 18 and 39, this event could very possibly be for you. If you fall outside of that age range, I hope you'll pass the word along to anyone you know who does.

This will be our fourth and final year -- at least with me leading it -- and my intention is for this to be particularly ... what's the word?  Significant. Yes. Our theme is "Enter the Mystery." We'll focus on how to tap into the mystical reality of our creativity and how to express that on the page.

For more information and to register, simply click here. Of course if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.

AND, if you've been to this YWW retreat in the past and you'd like to share your experience in a comment, absolutely feel free.

Can't wait to see you there!



Nancy Rue 

The Box of Lives

Box of LivesHey, my fellow Writerly Women! It delights me that you're reframing those questions that may have been keeping you from moving forward. Thanks for sharing, really. And move forward we must. Do the next thing. Be led to knowing what that next thing is. That's what we do, yes?

Actually, knowing what to do next, or even first, can sometimes be paralyzing. That's why, in my view, it's important to have a process, not just for writing as a whole -- as in, do you peel off layers or keep yanking at that drawer the potato masher is stuck in until it comes loose (I'll always love that image, GLORIA!). I find I need a process for each part of unfolding a story or a non-fiction piece. Building a plot takes a different approach than developing characters, and creating setting requires still another method, as does enriching theme.  Do you find that to be true? If you haven't thought about it, now's a great time to ponder that some.

So how about we start with characters? I personally discover my people first -- especially my protagonist and main antagonist -- determining what they need to learn, which then determines what will happen to get them there. Whether the folks in your work meet you at the starting line or further down the track, you do have to figure them out sometime, so hopefully this will be helpful to you.

There are about as many ways to shape your people as there are writers doing it. Diane Setterfield, who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors, writes in her awesome book The Thirteenth Tale about a young biographer and tells of her process for bringing the people to life on the page:

    For all my biographical projects I have kept a box of lives. A box of index cards containing the details ... of all the significant people in the life of my subject. I never quite know what to make of my boxes of lives. Depending on my mood they either strike me as a memorial to gladden the dead ("Look!" I imagine them saying as they peer through the glass at me. "She's writing us down on her cards! And to think we've been dead two hundred years!"), or, when the glass is very dark and I feel quite stranded and alone this side of it, they seem like little cardboard tombstones, inanimate and cold, and the box itself is as dead as the cemetery. " Thirteenth tale

First of all, you can see why I love her writing. So. Much. And why I might be tempted to adopt this approach just to see ...

Character developmentAnd yet my way is perfect for me. I set up a section in my binder for Characters, and each one has a picture I've selected from a magazine or on line (if I come to your home, do NOT give me access to your periodicals because it's almost compulsive for me to rip things out of them) and a full character analysis I can easily refer to as I write. Because I start each one of those with the person's backstory, their lives often tell me how the plot may twist and turn. We as real people aren't born with plots -- just natures. What happens to us and because of us tends to be shaped by who we are -- and vice versa, which is a plot in itself. 

But I digress ...

Again, not everyone would love doing that. In fact, I was going to teach at a writing camp once (it didn't pan out) and the young assistant assigned to me told me flat out, "I am so sick of doing character analyses. That is not how true artists write." I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn't ask how many books SHE had published, (a) because that would have been ugly and (b) she had a point, for her. That is not how the true HER writes.

So what are our options for making people up?

From working with writers for so many years, I've seen all kinds of methods --

    * Journalling and spiral journalling ( See our post from last year for more information on that. )

    * Hanging out with a character and making notes (one of my former clients smokes a cigarette with her protagonist; not physically healthy but she gets great results)

    *  Getting really creative and doing drawings or making figures. (When I wrote the Christian Heritage Series, Marijean's American Girl dolls were often in my office)

    * Creating a spread sheet (writer friend BRENDA does this; makes me break out in hives, but it works for her)

    * Using a program like Scrivener (author ANGELA HUNT swears by it; again, this makes me want to curl up into a fetal position, but she looks at my binder with all the stuff sticking out of it and turns pale)

And if you're a pantser? I'm in awe. I truly am. How the Sam Hill do you DO that? I know it happens and happens successfully. Far be it from me to discourage you. I will offer this, though. According to Donald Maass, the pantsers allow themselves the freedom to explore endlessly and make amazing discoveries, while the planners, if we're not careful, may somewhat limit ourselves from new ideas. He does warn that it usually takes the pantsers twice as long to get there, and they run the risk of abandoning the whole thing before they do! So maybe a little bit of planning might help?

Here's what I would love for us to do. Let's each come up with an image or metaphor for the way we approach character development, making it as visual as we can. I'll start:

It is like getting a glimpse of that intriguing person across the room at a delicious cocktail party full of sparkling, fascinating people. This one draws me in above all others. I make my way over to her, a glass of good wine in hand to offer her. I find something to comment on -- her brilliant laugh, her stilettos, her way of observing the crowd -- and she is at once comfortable with me. I begin to draw her out, and before you know it, we have found a settee in the corner and we are leaning toward each other as she talks and I listen. With my whole body. My head and my senses are teeming with her, and I know that as soon as I leave the party, I will pull out a fresh journal that somehow reminds me of her, and I will begin to make notes. In the margin I jot down the next time we'll see each other. Because we will. 

Cocktail party

All right, ladies. Show us what you're workin' with. Who knows? You may find out that you inspire someone here who's floundering in a pool of sinking characters who simply need to be revived.  Can't wait to hear.



Nancy Rue