The Gang’s All Here

Themed birthday party, ca. 1910-1915, likely i...

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When I was a little girl, about eleven years old, I had a birthday party. I was allowed to invite anyone that I wanted to. I invited the requisite family members and all of my best friends to my house for a party overflowing with pizza, ice cream, and buttercream frosting covered yellow sheet cake. This was going to be the greatest birthday party I’d ever had. It wasn’t going to be like the time when my younger cousin (birthday two days before mine), sitting on my lap to take a birthday picture, rammed his face and chubby little hands into the cake, destroying Ms. Piggy while leaving his Raphael Ninja Turtle unscathed. It wouldn’t be like the time when four people came with the chicken pox and gave me the disease. It wasn’t going to be like the time there was a blizzard and all the guest who managed to make it got snowed in at my aunts. Yes, I was still sharing a party with my younger cousin (four years younger) and my little brother (eight years younger), but my friends would be there this year.

Only, none of those friends came. I was so diappointed. While my little brother and cousin took pictures of them with their birthday booty, I pouted in a corner. All of my friends had baulked at coming to this “baby party.” I was, once again, the only one not having fun at my birthday party.

This isn’t an example of the worst birthday I’ve ever had. I’ve been in many a more awkward situation (hanging out with drunks, for example) on my birthday. It’s not the best birthday I’ve ever had either (that would have to be the weekend my boyfriend came to visit and took me to FISS, to dinner, to parties, to church, and bought me new shoes!). But, looking back on that birthday, I took away a valuable lesson.

There are times when I’m outlining, writing, or just living when I think of great characters. These characters are funny, daring, interesting, smart, beautiful, rich, elite. Of course, they must go in this story. Oh, I just have to befriend her. I invite them to my “literary” “writing parties.”  It’s very strategic. I know they will liven things up, open up old wounds for a character, push a character into doing something they really shouldn’t do, or provide the reader with a few good laughs. I just have to have them at my party.

Only, they don’t show up. Instead, I get the characters that I knew would be there, the family of the fiction world. I get the over protective aunts, the fashionable older aunt, the bad cousins. I get the people you have to prepare for by hiding your purse and putting away anything breakable. I get the people you never really invite but who always manage to find the party.

The thing is, though, in fiction and in life, the people who should be there, who need to be there, all show up. Maybe the popular girl at school didn’t show up, but my favorite uncle who always makes me laugh was there to cheer me up. Maybe the catty high school nemesis hasn’t yet shown up in my story, but the best friend who always has my MC’s back and gets them into (and out of) a fair share of scrapes was the first one to show up.

If you look through my social media, email accounts, and cell phone, the people I wanted at that party are largely conspicuous by their absence. When I look back on that party, on the way I eventually had a great time with the people who really are important, I don’t notice their absence at all.

The same thing goes for a good story. No ones going to miss a great character who doesn’t fit. Sometimes the characters we want don’t show up to the party. But everyone who needs to get there will get there eventually…even if they do show up late, drunk, and without a present. 😉

So, I’m encouraging myself to trust my writing and not force the wrong characters into my story. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. Let that character, and yourself, go free. He might just show up in another story. This is my birthday present to myself, the gift to be free of my own outlines and get lost in the story.

The Bad Beginnings Blues

Pictograms of Olympic sports - Tug of war. Thi...

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I’ve been engaged in a tug of war with my brain. There’s an idea lurking in there that I have one end of, while the other end is tucked into one of those little squiggly lines on my brains surface. I try to pull it out, but my brain is not letting it go. It won’t allow me to fully realize this idea I have in my head, an idea I know will be epic, if I can just get it out

Let’s back up to the beginning of this tale. I accepted a challenge from Cordelia to write more often and actually finish some projects this year. I was excited at the prospect of having someone to bounce ideas off of, to proofread my work, to tell me whether or not a piece needed to be reworked for the eightieth time, to tell me when something is crap and should be flushed down the toilet. I even had a solid story to start with.

I didn’t think the story needed much tweaking, only, the story I was telling didn’t seem finished. The thing’s I wanted to tell didn’t fit the story I had, though, because of the focus. After mulling this over a bit, I came up with an amazing idea. One that would fix my little dilemma, but create a slew of others.

The story I’m referring to is Candy Apples. Candy Apples is one woman’s struggle with a specific kind of addiction. She is in a support group with other individuals, two of which she interacts with regularly. The problem was, as I reader, I wanted to know more about these other women. The glimpses of them I saw in this story were so compelling, I had to know their stories. But this wasn’t their stories. Through several days of thinking and plotting, I came to the conclusion each woman needed her own story. They were strong enough to stand on their own. If the stories unfolded in such a way, I could even share certain events in Candy Apples from their perspective.

Then my mind ventured on and came up with a frame work for the other stories, which led to the realization other stories, and a little research, were needed. All of this was falling together and working out seemlessly. I ended up starting to examine one of these women’s stories, where I wanted to start, where it fit in my framework, what symbols and motifs would be important, etc. Finally, I was ready to start writing.

Only nothing came out.

This never happens to me.

I usually have spectacular first lines of my stories that start right in the thick of things and really set the tone for the story. This is especially true of Candy Apples. In the creative writing class I was in when I wrote it, one thing everyone agreed on was how awesome that opening line was. But somewhere along the way, I’ve seemed to have lost my first line mojo. I blame it on planning.

I’ve talked about what part of a story I get first here. It’s usually one of two things–a character or an opening line. Rarely is it a plot or a scenario. I’ve also talked about planning ahead versus going with the flow. I usually go with the flow and plan where necessary. This time, I had a strong character, already established in another story. This time, I’ve plotted out many of the important plot points and I know where I want to end the story. This time, I can’t think of an opening line to save my life.

The opening line has to grab the reader’s attention. It has to be interesting and intriguing, yet subtle and alluring. It has to invite you to read more without giving the game away. It has to seduce. In short, it has to work. This is especially true in a short story, as you only have so much time to establish a scenario and characters before you have to get things rolling.

I’m at a crisis point, a major stumbling block, very early in this story. Could it be I’ve lost my first line mojo for good? Does anyone have any tried and true techniques for crafting opening lines? Do you know of any good articles I can read on the subject? How can I wrest this opening line from the slimy recesses of my brain-squiggles?

Planning Ahead vs. Letting It Flow: NaNoWriMo Edition

Pisces

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Just like the Pisces symbol I was born under (if astrology means anything to you; it doesn’t to me), I’m in two minds when it comes to life: usually, I like to plan ahead for things and know what to expect (what I call my Against the Current Fish–ACF), but at other times I like to go with the flow (my Downstream Fish (DSF), alternately known as OK Player (OKP) when I’ve lost the will to care :D). Most of the time, the areas of my life are clearly ruled by one or the other facet of my complex personality:

Work: ACF     Bill Paying: OKP (bad, I know)     What I wear to work: DSF

Chores: ACF    Cooking: DSF

But there are some areas in life where the fish  battle for supremacy:

romantic relationship            packing

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of my writing, particularly my NaNoWriMo novel.

I planned very little in advance with this novel. Even though I lifted the idea from a little piece I wrote my senior year of high school for a writing workshop class. I planned out what the catalyst would be, the major dramatic question (MDQ), when it would all come to a head and who the major players were. I decided on a time line and how to split up the story: the call that is the catalyst for recent events, for example, occurs one year before everything comes to a head, but there are some important things that happened nine and ten years before the crisis point as well. I thought that I could plan out when to introduce characters before I wrote each day. Other than that, I would let the writing flow.

This seems to have been a bad idea. It works some days, but other days, I am almost in tears for lack of inspiration. I curse myself that I didn’t plan ahead better. My characters surprise me (the best friend being pregnant was not what I originally had in mind), real people creep in (my boyfriend as my MC’s boyfriend), and many of the things I planned go to crap (or are DOA).

But then, when everything clicks, it really clicks. Like my description of where she meets Nathan for their blind date, or how well the prologue came out. I had a one line description of one of my MC’s aunt’s that captured her character so perfectly, I could not write another word about her personality and you’d get it.

I worry that planning ahead too much can kill the anticipation I feel sitting down to write. It’s like a soap opera or Dexter: what’s going to happen when I sit down today? Is my MC going to go from frying pan to fire? Is she going to have a spot of good luck? What craziness will her pregnant best friend pull? Will the men inadvertently ruin everything?

So what I need to figure out is how to strike a balance between letting the work flow and planning ahead enough so that I at least have SOMEWHERE to begin each day.

How do you write? Are you someone who plans ahead, lets it flow, or both? How do you balance it out and keep writing?

Note: Balance is one of my favorite words these days.