Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 6: Character Turnabouts and Surprises

February 15, 2016craft

After three months, I finally started writing again and back to working through the exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Now that I’m back to a solid routine, I’ve decided there will be days I revise, or write new material, or experiment and turn the story on its ear.

Say what?

Well, that’s what the Great Maass asks us to do in Chapter 6. It’s all about reversing motives. This is what he writes about an unexpected direction in a story:

“It’s too bad that some novelists don’t publish their early drafts. Or do they? Anyway, it would be interesting to compare early attempts at a given with what later is published.

Generally speaking, we don’t get that opportunity, but even so one sometimes see in some novels that do not play the way we would expect them to. The whole thrust is a surprise, or perhaps the scene turns in an unexpected direction, or a character does something we do not anticipate.

Such effects come from trying different approaches to a scene. In essence, that is what Reversing Motives is about: trying a different approach to see if it works better.”

I’ve been pondering taking a different approach, wondering what direction the story would go and if it would make it better. By tweaking a scene where Corinne confronts the FBI agents who have been tailing her has put the story on a different path and has shown a side of Corinne where she’s in control of the situation instead of being the victim of political harassment. But in addition to her change of motive, it also begins to fill in the blanks to two of the sub-plots. Once I made that change, I realized that I had to make other changes much earlier in the story.

My discoveries thus far: the story is better with more layers that add nuance, complexity and intrigue. A beloved but dead grandmother’s secret is part of the key to what comes next in the story. What about that impasse I reached that made me question the story? It’s gone, and I’m excited about this new direction. All it took was Corinne to get off her butt and go against her grandmother’s advice from long ago.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t be afraid to apply what if scenarios to a scene that turns it completely upside down. You might be surprised at the positive change it will have on your story and what other possibilities follow.
  • As great as your first draft scene might be, reverse motivations can reveal your character’s true motives, and it also might fine-tune subplots connected to your character’s endgame.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 5: Heightening Larger-than-Life Qualities

November 4, 2015craft

This year I decided I would participate in NANOWRIMO, but instead of working on a new story, I am in the throes of revising and adding new material gleaned via the exercises of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

I’ve added more layers to the story and I’m happy to note that I think I have what could be the very last revision. Well, we’ve heard that before, but it’s time that I put this baby to bed and move on to Kiraly, which I had put aside after my malady (I’m fine, by the way).

In the previous lesson I had to dial up Corinne’s qualities, making her larger-than-life, the next step is…making them even sharper. Great and how do I do that?

Maass says to take the small opportunities and take advantage of those. He writes:

Larger-than-life opportunities can crop us anywhere; it only takes being alert to the possibility of sending your protagonist or point-of-view character beyond what is possible.

In this chapter’s exercises, Maass asks to randomly choose in the middle of your manuscript a scene and heighten what your protagonist thinks, says, or does. You can make it funnier, bigger, shocking, vulgar, out of bounds, over the top, more insightful, and so on.

In Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the story centers on four young men who met in college and ultimately move to New York for their careers. The story follows them until they reach their mid-fifties. Jude is the protagonist and what he experiences in his life from a foundling raised by Monks to his intellect to his physical ailments, Yanagihara heightens, sharpens to the point that it’s over-the-top, but it works. You’re never left thinking it’s cartoonish. Instead, you’re hoping that poor Jude will get a moment’s peace.

The next step is to do the opposite. Tone the scene down; understate it, make it quieter, more internal, more ironic, more offhand, maybe even barely noticeable.

Most people who know the story the ancient story of the Golem know they are violent and create havoc. In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker provides a quiet time for Chana, the Golem, and uses to describe the meticulous and understated manner of how Chana sews and reconstructs a dress to pass the night.

What’s next? Go back and see where out-of-bounds fit, but also find sections where quiet reflective moments parlay something bigger in the story.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t be afraid to make your characters act in an over-the-top manner.
  • Subtle and quiet actions also tell much about the character. Remember the expression of Still waters.
  • Ultimately it’s about finding the right balance. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep with too understated characters, but you also want to avoid characters that are just too cartoonish.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Chapter 4: Larger-than-Life Character Qualities

October 7, 2015craft

Zingers, revenge, overstepping boundaries…this chapter’s focus is injecting larger-than-life qualities into your character. Maass provides numerous examples of bon mots from novels flung from various protagonists’ lips and actions that reveal sassiness, humor, emotion, bravery, and conflict.

But it’s not just words that matter, but actions. What makes your character larger-than-life? Is she like Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander of the Millennium Trilogy—hacker, martial arts expert, mathematical genius but also very possibly on the spectrum? Or is he like Holden Caulfield, a depressed and sarcastic teen?

Despite Corinne’s ability to see the ghost of Alvah Bessie and to observe over time the subtle change of the miner in a Spanish Civil War poster, she doesn’t show any other larger-than-life qualities. She tends to back off too easily to avoid any confrontation. Her lack of action makes her passive but also limits her growth.

In this chapter, Maass writes:

“Harshest of limits are those we impose upon ourselves in our heads. Our inner censors are probably are more powerful than any censorship board any dictatorship could devise. Breaking through new ways of thinking, however, is the foundation of growth. To change, we must first change our minds.”

Maass asks: what’s the one thing the protagonist would never, ever say, think, or do?

What would Corinne do that’s out of character and makes her more memorable? Getting out of her head and actually doing and saying what she thinks. Oh, boy, I see a bumpier ride for her.

Lessons learned:

  • Make your character think differently. Let them go against the grain of their natural tendency. Have your character do a George Constanza. You never know what it will bring.
  • Your character may not be an action hero, but give him some sharp dialogue that makes him memorable.
  • Put your protagonist in situations that shift his perception of himself.