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The Method to My Madness—Sort Of

I often get asked about my process. How do you write your novels? Where do you begin? How do you keep going? And what do you do once you’re finished?

Great series of questions. Answering will take a while … so we’ll do this over a couple of weeks.

If we can believe the literary muckety-mucks, there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters follow outlines. Pantsers, not so much.

Plotters range from loosely structured folks with a basic idea of what their stories are about to those who follow rigid Roman-numeraled outlines detailing what’s going to happen—and precisely when. Of course, many plotters fall somewhere between those extremes. They might start with a central outline and depart from it as necessary. But basically, they tend to plan out their writing adventures ahead of time.

Pantsers, meanwhile, use a seat-of-your-pants style, letting their characters behave as they wish (like unruly children running wild in restaurants), allowing the action to unfold as it happens, with no real sense of what comes next … until the revision phase, that is.

There’s something to be said for both styles. This article describes differences between the two camps (citing authors who swear by one method or the other), and details various means of outlining; the one featuring index cards intrigued me, because it’s so fluid in its implementation. Whichever writing style works better for you, that’s the one you should embrace.

Time for a big ol’ confession: I’m not a planner. I’m also not exactly a “pantser,” per se … although it might seem like it, most days. Pretty much what I really do is transcribe the voices in my head.

No, I don’t mean voices in a psychotic sort of way. In an author sort of way.

Since 1977, I’ve housed a veritable bookshelf of characters in my squashy little noggin. Thankfully, they didn’t all move in at once. It started with two of them. But when the others saw how cozy it was, they barged in and immediately took up residence. Suffice to say it’s gotten pretty cramped in there, considering there were roughly six and a half dozen folks in there when I took attendance yesterday.

Granted, they’re spread out among five or six books; but any way you look at it, it’s an awful lot of people (and their assorted quirks, personalities and backstories) to keep track of. Most have been around so long, I know them better than many of my own family members; frankly, I like a lot of them better than some of my relatives.

Even so, keeping track of multiple characters can be daunting. That’s why many authors use what are called “Character Bibles” to chart their players’ physical traits, likes/dislikes, and idiosyncrasies. There are many ways to do this. I maintain a Word document with a page for each character. I list name, nickname, date of birth, eye color, hair color, parents, siblings, quality of relationship with parents/siblings, spouse/children, occupation, favorite food, quirks, likes, dislikes, favorite color, level of education, favorite childhood memory, worst thing that ever happened, even favorite candy.

You don’t have to get that involved with every character, especially fringe or minor players; but I like knowing their backstories and how the past affects what’s happening in their lives now. Even if the reader never learns half of this information during the course of your book, it gives you a solid background from which to work.

This isn’t the only way to maintain character profiles; but it works for me. Here—and here—you’ll find multiple means of tracking characters. Each is tailored to a different style or focus. Obviously, authors with auditory strengths probably won’t find Pinterest pin boards helpful; folks who operate visually would never rely on a spreadsheet for character details.

Stories don’t always start with character development. Sometimes, characters will show up and start demanding attention. For me, it began innocently enough, in Sister Teresita’s freshman English class at Mary Immaculate Academy in New Britain, Connecticut. I was minding my own business, paying attention to what Sister T was saying, when these two folks popped into my head and started having a conversation about broccoli.

Broccoli, of all things!

As writers, we should never let any idea go to waste, no matter how ridiculous it seems. So, there they were, in the produce aisle at Stop & Shop, discussing whether $1.29 a pound was a reasonable price. I quickly surmised he was doing his best to get her attention. She, being wholly naïve, didn’t quite catch on that he was trying to get her to notice him.

Jim and Michelle (as they initially identified themselves) bantered for a while over that particularly pricy member of the cabbage family when I asserted myself and asked them to pipe down so I could concentrate on my English composition. In hindsight, I ought to have jotted a few notes about them right then; a character-profile sheet really would have come in handy.

They obliged … ’til I arrived in Sister Christine’s fourth-period algebra class. Jim was trying to chat up Michelle again, this time over jars of applesauce. I asked them to scram, because I needed every available brain cell to focus on whether 3x really did equal 2y plus 19. Maddeningly, inspiration often strikes when it strikes and there’s no stopping it. Fortunately, you can train your creative side to emerge when it’s convenient for you. Here are seven ways to amp up your creativity—on demand.

By the time I got to earth-science class, Michelle realized she didn’t have bus fare; home was a 40-minute walk … and it was about to storm. Jim showed up in time to save the day—although not her jar of dill pickles, which fell victim to the forces of gravity and an inferior paper grocery sack. Clearly I would learn nothing about igneous rock that day! Sometimes you need to let go and succumb to the creativity.

Adorable chatter ensued, he drove her home in a downpour and, before I knew it, I had the start of Chapter 15 of my just-published second novel, Glimpse of Emerald. Eventually, Jim morphed into Gary and Michelle became Michaela; but I never gave up on those two characters … or their love story. More accurately, they never gave up on each other—or me. Persist in your writing and you’ll learn a few things … including this: Trust your characters’ voices … and take their chatter seriously.

Okay, in barely six paragraphs, I’ve zipped through what took years to write, edit, fret over, edit again, rehash with my writers’ group, edit some more … and finally get published. A lot of things intervened in the interim: graduation, college, a series of jobs, marriage, family issues, six household moves … you get the idea.

All that time, had I not been jotting notes about their families of origin, who their friends, relatives were, and their favorite foods, I never could’ve kept track of them and their respective motivations and wants/needs.

Next time, we’ll get into the meat of the whole “process.” But for now, I’ve got to get back to writing … can’t wait to see what they’ll get themselves into next.

Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in October.

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