Write it–Smells Like Messy Marvin

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Type A’s Messy Marvin Approach to Writing

In the Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup commercial, the bespectacled Messy Marvin floods the family bathroom while playing with boats in a tub. Suddenly, the water pours from the bathroom into the main room, later crashing through a wall. However, when Messy Marvin makes his chocolate milk using a spouted bottle, it’s an act of perfection.

Despite my Type A personality, my writing process resembles one of Messy Marvin’s crash courses. The process involves free association for 300 pages, no outline to map the terrain, and characters dropping in with surprises that rival the dramas presented in Mexican soaps.

For example, I wrote my first novel three pages a day, longhand in two spiral notebooks. I worked without a general direction. While I started with two main characters Joan of Arc married to Saint Francis of Assisi, other saint characters crept into the writing process and I ended up juggling subplots. The end result, a multi-narrational comedy miraculously manifested into a neatly typed manuscript. But that came after my upside down blog novel adventure and the rounds at Harper Collins UK’s Authonomy site.

For my next two novels, I adapted the stories from screenplays. That bode well for a plot. However, I faced the daunting task of writing 200 more pages of description and changing the story from present to past tense–a messy process indeed!

Again with my current novel, I’m praying to the plot whisperer to show up as I wade my way through my characters’ personal dramas, not to mention plot twists at the wrong time in the story.

Perhaps, I learned to write by watching too many movies by Surrealists where viewers were forced to invent their own plots as they swam in the movie maker’s stream-of-consciousness. It’s not far off to say that I write the movies I see in my head and I often hear the characters’ conversations long before I know the plot.

But this makes for a chaotic writing experience, sitting down at the computer to reach the daily quota of words without the ability to articulate my novel-in-progress to others. I hardly ever work out the plot in the first draft because at that point, I’m wading through the chaos of my characters’ lives. During the second and third drafts, a plot emerges and then later, once I understand the characters’ motivations in depth, I add the nuances.

It’s not uncommon for me to write the first draft, come up with a list of questions and then launch into research to fill in the gaps. I hardly ever follow the examples of former writing teachers which began with research and writing a general plot with the characters’ motivations. Many of my stories started out as “what-if” scenarios as was the case with my unpublished novel Super-Nature Heroes, which started out with what if Joan of Arc married Saint Francis of Assisi in modern Manhattan? You could even call that a plot.

However, my Type A personality can only take so much chaos before I turn into an anxious insomniac. Just as I can’t stand dust on my computer screen, stories without plots drive me crazy. To calm my anxiety, I started a notebook for my current novel in which I keep notes of each of my main characters including their Zodiac signs, childhood traumas that impact their lives, and clips of back stories that led my characters to their current insecurities and drives.

When I find myself stuck in that desert wasteland between pages 100 and 300, where plot-building either makes or breaks a story, I meditate on each of the characters and their current entanglements, then working with their motivations, I jot down lists of possible realities for each character. Often, I incubate possible story lines while I dream at night. Then when I wake up the next morning refreshed I feel like the plot whisperer dropped in for a visit.

The theme of the 2013 Chuckanut Writer’s Conference (Bellingham, Washington) revolved around the neurosis that authors suffer during the writing process. However, at the time of the conference I didn’t lump myself into this category. After all, I’m fully-functional, I organize my schedule, complete my to-do lists, and even juggle several projects at any given time, while buying groceries and cooking three square meals a day.

However, even Messy Marvin resembled a normal boy on the surface, despite his constant disasters waiting to happen. For me, the writing process breeds chaos, but the kind that causes me to thrive from the myriad of puzzles it provides. Instead of psychoanalyzing myself, I focus on the characters’ messy dramas. And then I go drink a cup of hot chocolate without spilling any on my computer.

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Write It–Doling Out Character Backstory

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Two scenarios plague most novelists. The first one revolves around clogging the narrative with too much backstory and too many character details. The second scenario revolves around not including enough backstory or descriptions to ground the story in a reader’s mind. I fall into the latter category.

However, as I’m rewriting my 5th novel, Enter 5-D, I’ve discovered that doling out the descriptions and backstory in small amounts throughout the early chapters (and later chapters), grounds the stories, gives the readers enough description to go with, and doesn’t clutter the narrative flow.

For instance, I’m current rewriting a novel with multiple story lines, and have created a new reality since my novel falls into the speculative fiction genre. But if I included character descriptions and backstory in large chunks, then I would slow down the tempo of the narrative, and also confuse the readers.  Not to mention, bore myself.

And I also ran into the same problem that I did with my other four novels and that is, not including enough character description or motives for their actions–but I did that less with this novel than with previous ones. But on the other hand, I don’t like reading stories with too much description of the characters, such as describing the eyes, hair, and clothing and other attributes in the same sentence or even paragraph.

On the other hand, if I don’t write down the descriptions of the characters and locations on notepad or storyboard, when I’m dealing with multiple characters, and Enter 5-D has a large cast, I say that a character has blonde curly hair at the beginning of the novel and in chapter 5, he’s a brunette! Of course, you can find these mistakes during the rewriting process and have a good laugh. “Wow, Orpheus, you went from being a Viking to a dwarf. How did you manage that?”

I received good advice recently about drawing pictures of the characters or finding photographs in magazines which I can use in a collage so that I have physical descriptions of my characters. For some authors, this is ideal. Federico Fellini used to sketch and paint his characters (costumes, hair, etc) before directing his movies. For some reason, my mind keeps going back to his drawings as I rewrite my novel.

The best way to use the doling out process is to keep a notepad with the descriptions and backstories for each of the characters, including their astrological signs, date of birth (age), country of birth, etc… I know of one author who is also an astrologer who draws up charts for her characters–now that’s going in depth.

Then when the characters encounter each other we view the other characters physical appearance, voice, etc  through the character (point of view) character’s eyes. So if I’m writing from my character Persephone’s point of view, she sees that Eurydice has dark, long hair, and wears a tunic that clings to her curves. Eurydice’s melodic voice sent tingles up and down Persephone’s spine.

Another approach is to combine a character’s actions with their physical attributes such as, “He slipped his fingers through his blonde curls. Then his blue eyes darted around the room.”

When I used to spend time on the author website, Authonomy, one common mistake authors made was to add long passages or chunks of backstory towards the beginning of their novels. Nothing makes me yawn more than overburdening a narrative with the character’s life story. It’s much better to dole out the backstory in the narrative as the character muses about situations in the past related to their current situation or state of mind. And then later, bring some of that backstory into conversations between characters. But only the most masterful authors do this well.

So the main trick here is to know your characters and their situations well. Research your characters or interview them so you can get their backstory. Remember that journalists never use all their material for an article–only that which catches the attention of their readers and fills in the gaps. As an author or creator of new worlds and characters, your job is to take the approach of less is more.

And if any of these ideas are new to you, then pick up novels of various genres and study how other authors handle backstory and character descriptions. I picked up The Hobbit recently to get an idea of how this is done with fantasy, a genre known for blending an active plot with lyrical descriptions (thus the thick books). Pick up a classic from any genre and you can’t go wrong.

And if you would like a coaching session, sign up at Metaphysics 4 Everyday Living. Please read the service tabs first. I’m available in person in the Bellingham, Washington area or by Skype.  Happy writing!

Write It–Jogging the Memory

DSCN3485My plan was to get started on my fifth novel last autumn, then life events sent me heading in the direction of a memoir. Now, I harbored misconceptions about writing memoirs which caused me to avoid them.  First, I thought I had to conjure bad memories and write them down in a narrative fashion.  And I thought that if I wanted to please readers that required a deeply disturbing confession of some kind…

Well, I since learned that writing memoirs does lead to gut-wrenching moments of rediscovery, but readers are more interested in a story they can relate to rather than a confessional.  Besides, I’ve never had a reason to hide in a closet and I’ve never worked in the sex industry nor am I the daughter of a controversial or famous person.  In fact, writing a memoir of any of my life stories seemed absurd to me, mainly because I find my life stories boring.  That was until last fall.

While it’s easy for me to remember events from the past months, I realize that digging back into the past requires jogging of memory.  Authors working on memoirs worry about accurate dialogue (isn’t going to happen unless you recorded your conversations) and portraying past events accurately, that is if they can even draw enough on memory to write a 200 to 300 page book. So I’m including some memory-triggering tips below.

  • Bring out the old photographs and photo albums from the time period of your memoir
  • Interview friends, family member, co-workers and colleagues involved in your story
  • Reread journal or diary entries from that period
  • Look up historic or media events from that period
  • Listen to music (extremely important for jogging memory) from the time of the events or situations featured in the memoir
  • Have a conversation with parents or close relatives about how they remember the event (this could prove healing too)
  • If the memoir involves illness or an accident, look up medical record notes
  • If the event was featured in the media, look up newspaper clippings or news audio clips
  • Look up current events from that time period
  • Visit a qualified hypnotherapist to trigger memories

Don’t worry if you’re story isn’t completely factual or accurate. The purpose of a memoir is to write from the author’s memory and perception of events.  It’s not the same as writing a autobiography or an article. Authors who feel that they roam too far away from the actual events (poetic license) add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book explaining this.

I read two books recently on writing memoirs which include: Paula Balzer’s Writing and Selling Your Memoir and Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories which I recommend.  Paula’s book gives you the nuts and bolts while Bill’s book provides exercises (which I found cumbersome since I don’t like to stop the flow of a narrative to do an exercise). Writing memoir workshops are often offered at community colleges and writer conferences.

I’m an Intuitive Coach for artists and entrepreneurs.  Sign up for sessions at Metaphysics for Everyday Living.  I’m currently working on a memoir titled Woman Sleeping on the Couch (One Couch Away from a Real Home).

Photo and post by Patricia Herlevi copyright