Rosie always refers to the Coleridge as a “she” rather than an “it.”
Rosie always refers to the Coleridge as a “she” rather than an “it.”
Imogen Parker preferred to call herself curious.
She was a learner. An observer. A student of human nature and human action. In short, she would tell you, she paid attention. There wasn’t much more to it than that.
She first heard the term “Nosy Parker” when she was five years old and, perhaps fittingly, had been eavesdropping on her teacher discussing her latest misadventures with the school principal.
It was the same story almost every week: Imogen asked too many questions, she turned up in places she shouldn’t be, and—worst of all, in Imogen’s opinion—squirmy, squinty six-year-old Morris kept ratting her out to Mr. Reed. Imogen was not a fan of Morris. The other kids in her class got along with her pretty well, but Morris had it out for her. Before Imogen showed up, he’d been the fastest reader in class. He didn’t like being shown up by a five-year-old girl. That was fair, she supposed.
After all, she didn’t like Morris.
part of Annabel Lee: Year One
On her first night in Philadelphia, Annabel Lee Winthrop killed four werewolves.
She found them on the highway near Penn’s Landing. They had cornered a young woman in one of the underpasses below the bridges connecting the waterfront with Old City. There was blood—a lot of blood—but the woman was screaming, and that meant that she was still alive. Annabel Lee had been walking on the bridge parallel to the one under which the small group currently hunkered, and when the screams had alerted her, she had dropped down onto the highway below and begun her stealthy advance. Luckily (and also unluckily), she was downwind from them, so they hadn’t yet scented her. Annabel Lee, on the other hand, took shallow breaths thought her mouth to avoid inhaling their rank smell: one part animal musk, one part raw meat, and one part wet dog.
Outlining and I don’t get along.
Teachers in high school are so pro-outlining that you expect they all belong to some secret outlining cult where they sacrifice stressed high school students and their stressfully written papers to the Higher God of Outlining. I had friends who outlined in high school, but I’ve never been an outliner. I also think that because all of my high school teachers told us time and again (some of them pounding the desk like evangelical preachers for the Greater Outlining Cult of the United States) that we had to write an outline in order to write a good paper, I was determined to prove I could succeed without one. Which, not to brag, but I did, and I did well. I had my idea, I knew where I wanted to go, but I never felt the need to write it down twice. What was the point?
I continued thinking this way all through undergrad, when my roommate would slave over her paper outlines and I would crack my neck, sit down at my desk, and churn something out in a couple of hours. It was never a finished paper, of course; it was just a very workable first draft, which I’d edit over the course of a few days or, deadline permitting, a few hours. It was an artform that I had perfected, and so, when I finally had my this is it, the big one idea for a novel, I approached it in the same way.
It was the worst writing mistake I’ve ever made.
My novel, Tough Luck, is about superheroes. Specifically, it’s about one superhero (who is in a bit of a moral gray area) and her struggle with the citizens of the city she protects while also battling a new villain that’s rolled into town. (You can see a more detailed explanation over here, on my Tumblr, where I answered an ask about the actual plot.) I approached this novel in a way I don’t usually approach stories–which is to say, I knew the ending first. I don’t like knowing the ending first, because I like going on a journey with the characters throughout the narrative. I learn things as they learn things; I think it makes it more authentic. Knowing the ending of a story was something I’d never encountered before. Knowing the ending made everything harder, because I had to figure out how to get to where I ended up. But I thought, I can totally do this the same way as I always do, I’m a champ.
Boy, was I wrong. (About doing it the way I always do, that is. I am a champ.)
I started about five or six drafts of this novel before I finally admitted that I needed to outline. I’m not very good at outlining. I had sort-of outlined a handful of the short stories I included in my senior thesis, and while the process had been helpful, it hadn’t always been the best solution to figuring out what made the story work. The only outlining I’d ever really done had been outlining chapters from my high school history textbook so I had working notes to study from. I knew how to outline that sort of material, but how did I outline my own brain?
It took me a while to psych myself up for it, but eventually it just boiled down to me plopping myself down with my handy-dandy legal tablet and starting to write. I don’t know if outlining would have helped me had I done it originally, but outlining after having so many false starts helped me see where I had gone wrong–why what wasn’t working, well, wasn’t working. There were times when I would write down an idea on the page that I had been working with through all six drafts and would think, Wow, that looks really stupid. It was a little demoralizing, realizing my idea was terrible and unworkable, but it helped me get perspective, which I had desperately needed.
My outline isn’t finished; I’ve decided to tackle it in stages. But when I went on vacation, I took my partial outline along for the ride. I was visiting my boyfriend, who is in medical school, and while he had class, I would hunker down in the living room with my laptop and my outline and just work. There were a few times where I had trouble getting something onto the page–the writer’s eternal struggle–but I was surprised by how easy it was overall to write when I had the outline sitting beside me. I didn’t need to look at it constantly, because writing it out had already planted the progression in my brain, but it was useful to have. I would look back to it when I’d reread a scene or a chapter and realize there was something missing.
Aha, I’d think, scanning down my rather scribbly outline. That’s what I forgot.
I’m certainly not advocating for the method that I used–starting and getting frustrated with about six first drafts is probably not the best way to write a novel. And I’m not even sure if I’ll outline the next project I work on after I’m finally finished writing Tough Luck. But if you find yourself stuck in the middle of your writing project–be it poetry, a screenplay, an academic paper, a novel, or whatever–maybe try outlining it. Sometimes jotting down the bare bones of your ideas makes it easier for you to visualize what works and what doesn’t.
What works for you when you’re generating a new creative idea? Tell us in the comments!!
Back in the early days of what we now call our codependent internet relationship, Basia and I spent a… slightly ridiculous amount of time on Tumblr. (Actually, it was probably a very ridiculous amount of time, but… anyway.)
Tumblr is many things to many people, but one thing it’s always good for is ask memes. What do these memes have to do with writing, you ask? Easy: they make excellent writing exercises.
Something about her spoke of wolfishness–her grin, perhaps, or the set of her shoulders. Whatever it was, I was not surprised to see her turn an almost predatory glare on any stranger who deigned to ask whether she, an English major, wanted to teach. What did surprise me was the subtlety of her kindness: a self-deprecating joke, a sincere encouragement, a friendly word of advice when pressed. She built with this, using her creativity to string together words that made the world a bit brighter.
At first glance she might look like any other underemployed artist. Paintbrushes with colorfully splattered handles stuck out of her bun, her dungarees always had colored pencils and tubes of paint falling out of the pockets. Her smile was quiet but infectious, and her wit as dry as the desert sand. She looked like she belonged on the cliffs by the sea, with an easel at hand and laugh on her lips–or maybe in a window-laden penthouse in the middle of a bustling city, sunshine streaking her brown hair gold as she drafts letters to friends scattered with stars.
Hugo was a worrier.
Being a ghost hadn’t helped matters.
In two lines, I’ve given you my main character and his two defining characteristics: one, that he worries; two, that he’s a ghost.
Ah, you say. If this is just an exercise in excessiveness, then why bother at all?
Simple: this meme shapes your observational skills.
Creativity is a weird monster that often requires the absurd or over the top to be acknowledged before you can sink into what you actually want to write. Practicing showy descriptions gives your brain room to do this. It gives you a space to practice writing out your observations. You’re not going to use the first draft of whatever you come up with. This is a starting point, a sketch of what’s to come. Besides, not every character can be introduced in two lines:
One of the trees gave a giant lurch as something small and dark dropped from its branches to the grass below. The dark blob slowly unfurled and Hugo’s eyebrows shot up as he realized that the small and dark something was a girl.
The girl moved calmly down the brick path. Her long dark hair hung loose and tangled down her back, and the rest of her appearance was equally tousled: grass stains on her knees, a bright red scab on her left elbow, a smudge of dirt on her forehead and under her fingernails. As she walked down the path, she dropped wildflowers on graves and curtseyed grandly to the older tombstones. Her feet were bare and calloused, and she wore overalls, not a skirt, but her smile was bright and her air gracious as she continued through the graveyard.
Gwen’s introduction takes much more time and allows for more of the flowery language I always reach with the meme exercise, but balances observation with action. From the two paragraphs above, you learn that Gwen is small, active, and unconcerned with tidiness–but also that she is kind and cheerful and curiously at home among ghosts and graveyards.
So next time you’re stuck trying to describe a character, try going overboard. Start with the showy phrases and heartfelt-but-somewhat-too-cheesy sentences and see what happens. You might end up with something ridiculous, but you might end up with an idea of just what your character needs.