Surviving Nanowrimo # 3: Finding your character

When I begin a story, I don’t even know what the story or novel s going to be. Since I always begin with a character, I use a prompt(s) to discover my protagonist. In the case of the exercise in “Surviving Nanowrimo # 2,” I began with Chad. An opening sentence in my rough draft might go like this:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

That’s all I know about Chad. At this point I don’t even know if she is the protagonist of the story. It’s like meeting a stranger on the street. By the end of the story, I will know this character better than I know my best friend.

I do not do a character biography. I find it distracting to try to remember all the details in the biography and when to use them. No, the way I come to get to know this character and others is to watch them in action.

Now Chad may not be the protagonist. But more than likely she will be. The reason being that I liked her response to my question: “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a big surfboard like that in a place like this?”

Her response: “Waiting  for the Second Coming. You have heard of the Second Coming, haven’t you?”

She was interesting. And she left me with more questions. So much so that I wrote the following for a first few paragraphs:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

“You’ll do anything to be the center of attention,” her brother said, handing her a drink.

She laughed. “So?”

“But did you have to bring that surfboard to do it?”

“Well, I want to be ready for the Second Coming.”

““I thought it had already occurred at Ulu Watu.”

From the opening sentence, the reader is seeing the character in action. The opening line makes the reader ask questions.

Then we see her in a relationship. She is interacting with her brother. Often this is how we discover who a person is and whether we want to be around them: how they interact with others.

In the opening paragraphs, we also learn something about the kind of relationship she has with her brother. They are both into surfing.

When I first looked at the two pictures, I knew nothing about the subjects of the photographs. By putting the woman with the surfboard in the party photograph, I created a “huh” in my subconscious. I got out of the way and allowed my subconscious to come up with that first sentence. Then one thing led to the other. From these few lines, I discovered that Chad is someone I like and will enjoy spending time with.

When beginning a novel or short story, a writer has to realize she may be living with her protagonist for months, maybe years. The writer has to enjoy the protagonist’s company and care about them.

Just look at how long J. K. Rowling spent with Harry Potter. And we can tell how much she loved Harry.

And remember there are no boring characters, only boring stories. When we first meet a character, it may appear that she is a boring person. She has the same routine, the same foods everyday. She wears boring clothes and has boring friends. If a character is like that, it makes us ask the question: Why is she so boring? That may be the story.

Or the story may be about a boring person who has something interesting happen to them. This is the plot of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There. Chauncey has been a gardener his whole life. The only experience he has of the outside world is from watching television. One day his benefactor dies. And Chauncey is thrown out into the world.

Once we see that a character is going to be a protagonist, we have to dig and discover what that character wants more than anything in the world, why do they want it and what’s stopping them. That will be the subject of “Surviving Nanowrimo # 4.”

My song

I’ve always wanted a song. When asked what song did I call my own, I have been known to respond jokingly, “Nowhere Man.”

It wasn’t because of the lyrics. If I had listened to the lyrics, I would have known that wasn’t me. I just liked the title.

I’ve thought about Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” Love the song but it’s one of those pick-my-rear-end-out-of-the-dirt-and-get-on-with-it songs.

It does that. And it does it in aces. But I can’t say that it is a song that defines me.

Then I heard Greg Lake of Emerson Lake & Palmer perform his “Footprints in the Snow.”

I chanced upon the song by accident. I had heard that Keith Emerson had committed suicide. To honor this great musician whom I had loved in my youth, I went back and listened to several of their albums, then I found Footprints. At first, I thought maybe Greg had written it for Keith–and that may be so. I found it on the 1992 “Black Moon” and began to re-evaluate. Maybe Greg composed this song for one of his children. Or a lover.

But there seemed to be more to it than that. At least, for me. Over the years since that 2016 night, I’ve listened to Footprints hundreds of times. Wasn’t sure why I loved the song but I loved the song.

The other night I pulled it up and listened to Footprints once again. And it hit me. This is a song about my relationship with myself. It’s a struggle of trying to come to terms with that relationship.

“First time when you looked at me
You tried to hide but I could see
A special beauty in your eyes
Passion flying like a spark
Like an arrow to the mark
I feel it sting my jealousy

Before you know there’s footprints in the snow

Desire like a river flows
Where it comes from no one knows
It isn’t heard, it isn’t seen.
Love just like a flower grows
And then God only knows
It comes down like guillotine

Now I feel the rain
of love torn by a hurricane
One night eclipsed the sun
How deep still waters run

How deep they go like footprints in the snow

Take my love into your brest
Commit my spirit to the test
You will see him like a knight
His armour gleams
We’ll fly upon his angel’s wings
Above the clouds in rainbow rings
We can sail a ship of dreams

If you will take my hand
We can cross this desert made of sand
We can break in through the ice
And feel the wind of paradise
We’ll feel it blow our footprints in the snow

Anytime you feel alone
Just raise your hand, pick up the phone
Take in my number, there I’ll be
If one day your stars won’t shine
I will give you some of mine
Cause they could fall so easily

We both know there’s footprints in the snow.”

Do you have a song you claim as your own? What is it, and why?

Near 500 words: TW and His Friend

Episode #25 of The Writer

TW (aka The Writer) left Christine Baxter’s office late. He looked at his watch. It said 6 p.m. As he got into his car, he realized that he was starving. When had that happened?

The time he had spent in Dr. Baxter’s office had passed way too fast. As they discussed the postcard and what it revealed, the two of them came to the conclusion that they had to get together the next day in the library to continue their research. Where it would lead neither knew. But they knew it would lead somewhere unbelievable. They were on the edge of a major discovery. All because of a postcard.

There was a steak in the freezer. He’d thaw it out and throw it on the grill. This was the first time he’d wanted to eat since Cat died. What had she gotten herself into and what had happened to the postcards?

He veered to the right, barely missing a pedestrian. Get your mind on your driving. You can think about Cat and the postcards and Dr. Baxter’s information after you get home, he told himself.

He turned into his street and saw Buddy’s car parked in his driveway. Good. He would have a chance to discuss the recent events with Buddy. He pulled over and parked on the side of the road because there was no room in the driveway behind Buddy’s car.

Then he saw the body. It was Buddy.

He jumped out of his car and ran over to see Buddy lying on the grass. Buddy was shaking his head.

TW kneeled down to see if Buddy was okay.

“Give me a hand,” Buddy said.

As TW lifted Buddy off the grass, he asked, “What happened?”

“Damned if I know.”

TW waited till Buddy cleared his head, then he helped his friend inside. Buddy sat down on one of the dining room chairs. TW went into the kitchen and poured water onto a washcloth and took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.

Sitting across from Buddy at the table, he listened as his friend gave him the story. “I had some papers to give you. They’re from Dr. Hollings. As I got out of my car, I saw two men leaving your house. I dialed 9-1-1. When the dispatcher picked up, one of the s.o.b.s slugged me. Where’s my phone anyway?”

“I’ll get it.”

A minute or so later, TW laid the pieces of Buddy’s phone onto the table.

“Shit,” Buddy said. “I just got that phone too.”

“Why don’t I take you to the hospital, then I can call the cops.”

“Guess that’s best. I sure have one hell of a headache.”

A half hour later, TW was talking to the doctor. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I think so. But it’s best he stay overnight, and we do some x-rays in the morning.”

“Can I see him?”

TW walked into Buddy’s room. “You’re going to be alright. I just saw the nurse who’ll be taking care of you. Maybe I could get hit over the head and she’d take care of me.”

“You’re not going to steal–Damn this head.”

Buddy’s chin dropped to his chest.

TW rushed out into the hall, yelling, “Nurse, nurse. Someone.”

 

Near 500 words: TW finds a wood carving

Episode 8 of The Writer.

TW (aka The Writer) knelt and picked up the wooden carving off the floor. He sat down on the carpet, leaned against the wall and rubbed the butternut wood. It had a beautiful brown tan.

Into the wood, Sylvia had carved a butterfly riding a robin. She had given it to him for his twenty-sixth birthday. When he asked about the butterfly, she smiled. Her smile always gave her face a glow. “Oh, it’s a monarch. It’s my spirit animal. And I wanted to share it with you. If something ever happened to me, I would be with you still.”

“What’s a spirit animal?” he asked, feeling the smoothness of the carved wood in his hand.

“It’s a guide. Kind of like a guardian angel.”

He gave her words some thought.

She continued, “Everybody has a spirit animal. It’s a gift.”

“A gift?”

“Yes. From the One.”

“From the One?”

“You might call the One the Tao. The One has many Names. The Great Spirit. Father. Mother. Yahweh. Jesus. Buddha. Allah. Vishnu. Shiva. Brahma. They all apply.”

TW looked at Sylvia. He didn’t really know the person who sat before him, her legs crossed into a full lotus. This was someone who had a depth to her. The kind of depth no one else he knew had. It was as if she were an onion, pealing the outer skin off. There were many more skins to pull before he would know the real Sylvia. He wasn’t sure he deserved her. And her love. That scared him. What was he going to do?

Sylvia reached over and touched his head. A warmth surged through his body and he felt calm. It was like a peaceful evening on a beach with the ocean singing to him. Tears rolled down his face. Sylvia wiped the tears away and embraced him, and they made love.

As they lay side by side on the floor, he realized he had forgotten something. He rolled over and faced her. “What about the bird?”

Her green eyes twinkled like stars. “The robin also is my spirit animal.”

“You have two?”

“Actually the butterfly is transforming into the robin. I was a butterfly once. Now I am a robin.”

“Well, that’s interesting. Do I have a spirit animal?” he asked, frightened that he might not have one.

She reached over and put her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Of course, silly. You might even have more than one.”

“What is it?”

She laughed. “I am not the one who should know.”

“Then who?” He was anxious to know.

“Don’t you know?” She asked as if she was trying to get him to dig down deep inside and pull the insight out.

Now he was confused. He had always been good at digging out information from the most unlikely places. But this didn’t seem like information he could discovery through research.

He looked down at his hands. She had been holding them all along and he didn’t realize it. Her hands exuded some kind of energy from them. The energy felt like joy and peace and happiness. It was at that moment he saw that the two of them. They were levitating a good foot in the air.

“Don’t think,” she whispered. “Just enjoy.”

I am at my best …

When things get really bad, I go to the writing place. Neil Gaiman.

When I sit in a chair and face a blank canvas and make up words on that blank slate before me. I am at my best when I rewrite those words and create a better draft than the one before. I am at my best when I add and subtract words from that scribbling I recently put on the page. I am at my best when I squeeze everything I can out of those words and get juice. Writing, I love every part of it.

The beach appears empty. It is high tide and the waves rush toward the shore. The sun is about to set. A fiery orange colors the sky the way Van Gogh must have colored his canvas. With strokes of genius. Suddenly a head bobs up from the water, then two arms reach toward the white sand that is the beach.

Questions arise in my mind. Who is this person and why alone in the water? Why is the beach empty of people? This is where the questions start begging me for a narrative to answer them. Story is born.

Could it be that the one I see is an alien criminal, escaped from some distant waterworld of a prison and the galactic cops are trailing her? There I can almost see one of the police behind her. No, that’s a mermaid, or maybe a merman. I am relieved but, at this distance, I can’t really tell who it is behind her.

Could be that man in the water some five minutes ago dove for pearls. The water grabbed him up and tossed him miles toward this African beach. Soon the night overcomes the world with its darkness and the surfer drags himself up onto the shore. He lays naked on the warm sand, his swimming trunks pulled off him by the tide going back out to sea.

There are dozens, hundreds of possibilities. These are only two. Maybe I can combine them and see what story appears on the horizon. But looking out onto that man on the beach, I know his name is Charley and he fell off a cruise ship. Knowing this, I now know what he wants, what he desires more than anything in the world. To get back to his wife and home. So what is stopping him? Nothing but the jungle and the ocean. And maybe Tarzan of the Apes who doesn’t like other human beings treading into his territory. You see, Tarzan is a very territorial guy and this part of the jungle is off limits for everybody except Jane, Boy, Cheetah, and himself. Seems like Tarzan may very well be my antagonist.

Now where do I go from here? Not sure. It’s going to take some brooding and figuring out the kind of guy this Charlie fellow is. As I study old Charlie and write several scenes, each taking him in a new direction, I realize that Charlie doesn’t really want to get back to his wife and civilization. You see, I start getting some back story. Charlie and wife Allie were having a fight on the cruise ship. “I want a divorce,” he screamed at her. “The hell you do,” she screams back at him. She hits him. She hits him hard across the face. He falls backward and over the side of the cruise ship, the Norwegian Viking. The last words she hears from him as he hits the water is, “Oh, shit.”

Now I can hear it. Uncle Bardie, where’s the planning in that? What structure do you have? None at this point. But this is my first draft and a very rough one at that. In my second one, there will be decisions to be made. Do I begin on the beach or on the cruise ship will have to be answered.

Next comes the digging. I don’t know what this Charlie really wants. I make a list of important events in his past. I pick one that I think is the most important, I count to ten and start writing. I am writing for insight not to include the scene in the story. If I don’t know this stuff about my character, my reader won’t know it. In this and other scenes I write I am coming to know my character well enough to tell his story, He is like a stranger I just met. By the time the story ends I will know him better than my closest friend or partner. Once I know him well, I know what he wants and I can then tell whether he will turn left or right on that beach or go straight into the jungle. I know whether he has the resources to survive the jungle. I have some clue at what resolution the story will have. That resolution may change along the way and probably will, but at least I have a direction. And I can see the first turning point in my plot. It is a goal to head for.

One of six. These key scenes include: plot point one that turns the plot on its head and twists it in a new direction, a midpoint where the story changes again and sends the character flat on his ass, a second plot point that throws my story into a completely new direction, a catharsis where Charlie has a knock-down-drag-out with Tarzan. I find out that Charlie beats the crap out of the Ape Man himself and ends up in a tree house with Jane, Cheetah, and the Boy. Course I always knew Tarzan was an extraterrestrial cop. I just didn’t have proof. That’s my first draft.

Didn’t know I would end up in a tree house at the beginning but so it goes. Now comes the elbow grease and the spick and span. It’s time to do the polishing, get out the structure chart and make sure all the holes are filled in. Begin to discover which scenes need more work, which scenes need cutting, which scenes need creating.

In my process, I haven’t completely abandoned structure at the beginning. But I leave a lot of room open for discovery. As I work through the second and third drafts, I know where I should be in the story. But, for me, it’s like knowing that I am in Chicago on my way to Seattle. I just need to decide how long I will be in Chi-town and what sights I will see there. As I visit those places, I get a sense of whether I am headed in the right direction to get to the sight I want to see. In each scene, I decide what the characters want in that scene, what is opposing them and whether they will get it. If they do, it becomes a “yes” but. if not, it is a “no however”.

Soon I am into my fourth draft and I am polishing up all those verbs, kicking the adverbs out on their asses and deciding if that noun needs a buddy adjective. When it is all nice and neat in its Sunday best, out it goes into the world. Hopefully some publisher will like. But …

And now it is on to my next tale. For I am at my best when I sit my butt down in the chair and face the blank sheet and put words on paper.

When are you at your best?