As writers seeking the one magical piece of advice making our names synonymous with Stephen King, John Grisham, Sue Grafton and a host of other best-selling authors, we’ve read it a hundred times –
If you don’t have interesting characters, you have no story.
Forget interesting! Readers absolutely must love (or hate) your characters and feel what they feel, as if they themselves were in the middle of each character’s world.
Writing pundits advise spending time developing characters; come to know them as if you were playing each one’s part.
This is called character profiling.
I’ve been at the writing game for longer than I care to admit. Through articles, blogs, how-to books, on-line courses, my own research, and a love affair with Google, I’ve produced an extensive character profile in Excel, my writing companion I would be absolutely lost without. Like most writing templates, it’s an ever-changing and ever-growing work-in-progress.
My character profile is broken down into 36 categories, among them Name, Physical Description, Background, Education, Psychological, Sociological, Relationships . . . you get the idea.
The categories themselves are subdivided into 475 rows of detail. For instance, a character’s physical description includes height, weight, hair color, eye color, physique.
How much of a character profile to fill is directly related to the role the character plays in the story. A typical story will usually contain three main characters – protagonist, antagonist, and love interest. These are the only characters requiring a complete character profile. Usually, with some exceptions, not much more than a physical description is required for the majority of the characters in the story.
The complete in the above paragraph bogged me down in my early days of writing, when I was naïve and took every piece of advice to heart. I wanted to be complete in developing my main characters, making sure I knew how they ate, talked, walked, spoke, and slept, which often required extensive thought and decision. We can’t have every character born in California and eating pasta every night for dinner.
The more I read and the more I practiced my craft, the less naïve I became. I started to take each piece of advice with a grain of salt, particularly when the advice, some from best-selling authors, often was contradictory. You know what I’m talking about . . . you’ve been there, haven’t you?
The time I spent developing the character profile consistently accomplished one thing – it kept me from writing the actual story.
Yes, interesting characters are an absolute mustfor a good story, but if nothing happens to the most interesting character in the world, you have no story.
Now when I sit down to develop a story, I work my character profile and story structure in concert. By story structure I mean plots, obstacles, and conflict. In short, events, all of which need to be worked around the goals and motivations of the main characters.
I create the bare minimum of my extensive character profile, followed by at least an idea of what events will drive the actions of the characters. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a skeleton of scenes and chapters outlined, even if a particular scene/chapter description is simply “Detective Finds Body.”
The more extensive the character profile, the more you pigeonhole that character, in essence, limiting him or her to acting and reacting according to the profile, rather than to the events in the story. Most fiction writers, whether plotters or pantsers, know a story is likely to change as each scene and chapter develops, so it’s logical to limit your character profile. You can always fill it in as the story develops.
Another reason to resist spending too much time on character profiles is only a limited amount of information is relevant to the story. For example, the fact my main character attended elementary school in Kansas only matters if something significant happened during that time and contributed to the makeup of the character. Likewise, a character’s food preference, and even how he or she eats, only becomes important if a scene requires the reader’s awareness of that character’s culinary habits.
Perhaps more importantly, since the writer’s goal is to maximize show, and minimize tell, there might be a tendency to provide nothing more than a laundry list of a character’s traits without considering the list’s importance. I fell into this trap early on, and many times threw something together just to fill in the blanks.
In my experience, the biggest benefit to limiting time spent on a character profile is it keeps me from getting bogged down in administrative details and hastens writing the actual story.
My approach is to develop the characters organically, allowing them to be shaped by events, conflict, dialogue, and other interaction with characters. Put another way, rather than develop my character, I get to know my character as the story unfolds.
If you find yourself similarly dismayed by issues related to character profiling, do consider changing your approach.
As writers, we find inspiration in the strangest places. Mine came in the form of a reality show called The Great British Baking Show (PBS).
The summer of 2018 proved to be a cornucopia of disasters, one after another spilling over into my life. AT&T workers destroyed my back yard to lay their fiber optic cable in April. My toilet exploded in May. Coverage was denied. I refinanced in June, and dealt with predatory contractors through July. Meanwhile, I lived out of boxes. I gained new respect for any and all disaster victims—one such victim assured me that my loss of four rooms to sewage was literally a drop in the bucket. A kidney stone in August surely meant the worst was over. Wrong. When AT&T busted my sewer pipe, they also nicked the electrical cable. I lost half my electrical power in September. Icing on the cake took the form of two back-to-back rejections from literary agents for a manuscript I’d submitted.
I was too traumatized to write. My mind and body had morphed into survival mode. Even doubling my meds to keep my nose above the sewer line didn’t help. Then, on PBS, I found something called The Great British Baking Show. One of the contestants nearly blew up a microwave, and I laughed for the first time in months. Another failed to cool her mousse completely. I watched as it sloughed off the cake plate onto the counter in a huge puddle, and farted. I guffawed. The clincher came during bread week when a woman took her buns out of the oven and proudly slid them off the baking sheet onto the counter. With yeasted breath, I followed their journey as they glided straight across the polished butcher block onto the floor!
By now, I’m sure you’re asking (1) is there a point to this, (2) will I ever make my point, and (3) how could I possibly find a modicum of hope in a baking show when I’ve never been even a halfway decent cook?
The first thing I took away from The Great British Baking Show was the attitude of these people who live to bake. It’s what they do, what they love to do, what they were born to do. And every time they failed in some way, they resolved to crack on. To keep going, no matter what.
The second serving of reality came from the words they used. I’m not talking about their British take on how to pronounce oregano or banana. I noticed that every single one of them took ownership of their craft. When I follow a recipe and read the directions out loud to myself, it goes something like this: add the yeast, let the dough rise, fold in the strawberries, and line the pans. But when they related the same information, it was: I’m going to add MY yeast, let MY dough rise, fold in MY strawberries, and line MY pans. Boom. It hit me. They owned it.
So look out, 2019, I am resolved to crack on and write, no matter what disasters befall me! And I will own my craft and take pride in my product.
Even with my buns on the floor.
Here’s my formula for writing fiction:
1) Establish a hard deadline.
2) Productively procrastinate until that deadline is imminent.
3) Open yourself to serendipitous inspiration.
4) Crank out a masterpiece.
I love deadlines. Without them, I’m not sure I would ever produce anything. I’m perfectly able to self-impose and stick to them. Over the years I’ve discovered how much time I need to stagger deadlines appropriately: first draft deadline, second draft deadline, peer-editing deadline, final submission deadline. Douglas Adams said he liked deadlines, especially the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Not me. Failing to meet a deadline is a mortal sin. I would overwork myself into the hospital to avoid missing a deadline.
Once I’ve established a hard deadline, the next step is to procrastinate vigorously. I let weeks go by where I deliberately refuse to think consciously about what I’ll be writing. My story is on the back burner, deep in my subconscious, simmering. While it is simmering, I fill the time by immersing myself in narrative structure. You may have read the quote, “For every page you write, read a thousand.” Being retired, I can live by this maxim. I’m a junkie for narrative fiction. I spend nearly every moment of the day immersed in a novel or watching Netflix. I have a standing desk over my treadmill so I can read my Kindle while I sweat. Except when dining out, I’m not sure that I can eat unless I’m watching TV. My procrastination is targeted. I mostly write genre fiction, so I immerse myself in whatever genre I’m currently aiming at.
Some writers are afraid they’ll internalize the style or content of what they read, that their fiction will become a pastiche of whatever author they are currently enjoying. I love to read Sue Grafton, but I would cringe if my readers thought my lead character was a Kinsey Millhone clone. My solution is to wash out particular influences by reading so many stylistically diverse authors that no single author unduly influences me. Accumulating experience as a professional writer, you will gain more confidence and security in your unique authorial voice, immunizing yourself from contamination.
As I’m reading or watching TV, my story is simmering along in its subconscious mental crock pot. The approach of the deadline is what brings it to a full boil. The heat source is full grown panic. I have to wait until I am terrified that I will miss the deadline. I have to feel as if this will be the time when I will miserably fail. Surely this time I will let down my family, friends, colleagues, publisher, and fans. As I sit down at my keyboard and stare at the blank page and feel the crushing horror and desperation of writer’s block wash over me, I know I’m ready.
Now I open myself to the spark of serendipitous inspiration. The groundwork of productive procrastination sets up the fecund chemical solution. What’s needed is a single crystal around which the story will grow, seemingly full blown. Example: I needed to produce a detective short story. I had done all the prep work mentioned above, including reading some of Nevada Barr’s fiction about park ranger Anna Pigeon as well as watching a nice little film noir from 1954 called Dangerous Mission set in Glacier National Park. I’m listening to NPR in my car when I hear a snippet about a rare and spectacular eruption of Ear Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The supervolcano below Yellowstone has been issuing ominous warnings of a catastrophic eruption for a while now, and this geyser eruption is just one more portent of the apocalypse. Of particular interest to me was that the eruption shot out debris that had become lodged at the bottom of the geyser, including such artifacts as a cement block and a 1930s era baby pacifier. Perhaps, for the purposes of my story, an heirloom watch from the same era engraved with the message, “to B. H. from his Loving Father,” is also ejected? I knew from previous readings that the toxic waters and boiling temperature of these geysers would disintegrate all human remains in short order.
Driving for the next ten minutes, the story simply fell into place, seemingly without conscious effort. In the late 1930’s Brian Holcombe was one of the thousands of able-bodied, jobless victims of the Depression who gratefully joined FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, earning enough to live on by repairing trails in our National Parks, and providing enough extra cash to send home to his young wife and son to keep them from starving. Imagine our strapping young not-yet-villain working amidst natural splendor all day beneath a broiling sun, lonely, and very, very horny. Perhaps inevitable was his affair with the pretty blond waitress from the lodge who provided him with lemonade and a sympathetic ear, and then, also inevitable, the love child that waitress produces nine months later. What’s a young man supposed to do when he really, really loves his wife and child and he really, really doesn’t want to support two families? Well, he would naturally go for a romantic moonlit walk with said waitress and newborn daughter out to view Ear Geyser. Quick bop on the waitress’s head with a rock. Wrap her and the baby in rope, attach rope to cement block, and toss them in the boiling geyser. Fast forward to the late 1950’s. (I think I’ll have this evidence-revealing eruption of Ear Geyser happen sixty years earlier so that my villain isn’t nearing a hundred years old. More suspense if he is a forty-some year old in 1958, trying to put a lid on his decades-old crime rather than a wheezing geezer stalking our hero using a walker and an oxygen bottle.)
Yellowstone Park Ranger Patrice Wade is a bit of an amateur archaeologist and public relations woman always looking for a freelance news story that would boost park attendance. Wouldn’t it be cool to get a picture reuniting B. H. with the watch he lost down Ear Geyser back before the War? Well, after some cunning detective work,Patrice finally locates successful Boston businessman and pillar of his community Brian Holcombe, and Brian doesn’t think it’s cool at all. Indeed, he insists that Patrice not tell anyone about the watch until he has made it out to Yellowstone to tell her the fascinating background that will give her a really special story. On the long drive to Yellowstone, Brian asks himself how many times do I have to dunk someone down a geyser before this will all go away, and how large of a cement block will I need to keep Ranger Patrice submerged forever? The suspenseful denouement practically writes itself. I try to make sure that my account of the heroic fight at the edge of Ear Geyser, and the poetic justice boiling of Brian Holcombe in the same toxic pool where he disposed of his lover and infant daughter, gets typed up mere minutes before my self-imposed deadline. Masterpiece cranked out. Set out a new deadline for my next work and return to arduous task of productive procrastination. A writer’s life is a good life.
While watching one of my favorite home improvement shows, one of the couples paused on the doorstep of their newly remodeled home. The young man knelt, held out a ring to the young woman, and said, “Make me a better man. Marry me.” My first thought was how sweet. My second thought was wait a second.
The question was asked with love and with the best of intentions, but it wriggled around in my brain and refused to die quietly. What did he just say? What is he asking her to do? Why doesn’t he make himself a better man before asking her to share his life? Does he believe she only deserves second best? Or does his assumption hark back to olden days, when men not only expected their wives to be virgins (when they themselves were not), but placed the burden of upholding the morality of the nation on their young wives. As in, I’m going to mess around, but you must remain pure. Or, I’m going to come home drunk, but I’d better not see you taking a swig. And God forbid you ever smoke a cigarette. Oh, honey, would you hand me the ashtray?
After pondering all the hidden resentments that swelled to the surface, I chastised myself for being a sexist, even if history bore me out to the beginning of civilization. If women had not taken care of men, children, and the home—what would men have become, left to their own devices? And now, in the 21stcentury, what man has the right to ask a woman to shoulder his responsibilities of self-control and contribution to the partner arrangement?
The Bronte sisters come to mind. They published under male pseudonyms because “women simply weren’t published.” Virginia Woolf understood the double standard for gender in authors and emphasized the point in her heart-opening “A Room of One’s Own.” She explains the obvious regarding the absence of all but a handful of women authors as late as the 1920s. Where were they? Raising children, taking care of the home, even working—either outside or inside the home—to bring extra income to the household. Where were their writer husbands? Sitting at a desk in their studies or libraries, rooms of their own, crafting novels.
I’m surprised the practice of keeping women in the shadows continued into the 1930s and beyond. “The Other Einstein” by Marie Benedict chronicles the never-acknowledged contributions of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, a brilliant physicist in her own right who came up with many of the theories her husband published under his name and his name alone. After doing the majority of work, she received none of the credit. Her research revealed that the more famous he became, the more he relegated his wife to the shadows.
What if one could say, “Marry me and make me a better writer.” How? When? By doing the housework and the laundry, fixing the meals, taking care of the kids, doing the dishes, and keeping track of the bills while holding down a full-time job? Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Most of us are “real characters” and we thrive on what fills our short stories and novels — conflict. Whether internal or external, our natures demand it. If you are privileged to have a significant other, perhaps what matters even more than the dishes is that magical gift of unconditional love called encouragement. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said he could live two months on a good compliment?
Writing is hard work. Duh. If you chance upon an aspiring author and catch him or her staring at the window, lost in thought, rest assured. THEY ARE WORKING. Let them have a place to write, the time to capture words and emotions on that blank computer screen, and the offer to watch the kids while they meet with other writers to hone their craft. It’s all we ask.
Respect my space. Time is a precious commodity, and I’m doing what I was born to do.
Go ahead. Make me a better writer.
Stories without an End
by Cash Anthony
How does a writer tell stories about untellable events? How do we represent the “non-experience” of undisclosed trauma?
In the midst of the current turmoil, some American writers face a decision about whether to bypass the #MeToo movement by testifying to their trauma in a manner that far exceeds the limited character rules of Twitter, well beyond what a Facebook page offers. They find their writing goes farther than merely reporting events of such profound significance. Try as they may to disentangle their stories from their trauma, the aesthetic focus remains on such experiences, because they feel a deep need to finish responding to them, in fiction or non-fiction.
They often repeat these themes through an examination of human motives. Unconsciously or not, they re-enact their memories and re-probe their wounds until the need to witness is satisfied.
At a psychological level, this effort of, as Freud put it, remembering, repeating, and working through a traumatic event can transform the search for catharsis through action – commonly known as “acting out,” a compulsion to repeat the trauma in another form – to a preference for making emotional associations as a mechanism to come to terms with the past and move on. In the case of an individual’s attempts to work through events that have become internalized into her identity, the goal is not to abandon memories of the event but to uncover the ways they have become problematic.
For fiction writers, the connection between the past reality and the present attempt at representation raises this issue: when the trauma was incomprehensible at the time it occurred, such that the event is hard, even impossible, to narrate, writing a redemptive story can mean changing the common narrative paradigm of (1) a seeming paradise, or at least the world in stasis at a story’s beginning, when the trauma is not remembered or cannot be described, (2) a call to action that results in a fall or disruption from that status, (3) a struggle to change or solve the problem of the character’s history, and (4) redemption and re-integration into current reality. However, an insistence on reaching a complete solution at the end of the story tends to minimize the trauma and its pervasive effects. So, a modern narrative structure could well add a fifth element to the paradigm, one that takes into account the individual’s post-traumatic reactions even after redemption and admits that the conclusion is not the end of the story.
As an example of this new paradigm, one can look at recent testimony presented in the U.S. Senate to illustrate that the effect of trauma can persist for decades despite attempts to work through it.
“If it was that bad,” said President Trump about the alleged sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl, “why didn’t somebody call the FBI thirty years ago?” (The FBI would have referred the complainant to state authorities, as such offenses are normally not within their jurisdiction.) It’s a perfect example of the reason two out of three women who are sexually assaulted in America do not come forward with their stories. They fear retaliation, shaming, and trivialization of the event–and above all, that their stories will not be believed.
Now, I feel, is the time to come forward with mine.
In the fall of 1973, I came back to the U.S. after living in Europe five years. During my time away, I had decided to change my major at the University of Texas, where I had already advance-placed 21 semester hours and completed, in two years, three plus years of undergraduate studies in an interdisciplinary honors program called Plan II.
While I lived abroad, I had the opportunity to work in the obstetrics department of a hospital four days a week for two years. I chaperoned innumerable examinations of female patients and took mothers in labor through their admission to the hospital and into the birthing zone. It was work I loved.
I came to feel that my true calling was to go to medical school and become a gynecologist. My previous focus had been on foreign languages and English literature, but having to take advanced science courses before applying to Texas medical schools – a daunting proposal at first – wasn’t going to stop me.
By spring I had made the transition and completed many of the medical school entrance requirements. I had even passed the first semester of “the Big One,” the course that “separated the men from the boys”: organic chemistry. I was living alone in a small apartment while my then-husband served a military tour, which gave me plenty of time to study.
Before my morning classes, it became my habit to arrive on campus early and head for the UT Athletic Center for a hot breakfast. The cafeteria there offered inexpensive food of a much higher quality than other eating places on campus. This was no surprise, given the support provided to a varsity football team that was one of the best in the country.
There I met a fellow pre-med student named Dave Small. He had observed the load of science books I carried and introduced himself as a returning student like me, but some ten or fifteen years older. His background was in opera, and he said he had sung in distinguished productions in Germany, in cities I had visited.
We struck up an acquaintance. After a while, Dave would seek me out at the cafeteria at breakfast and sit with me, often three days a week. We didn’t really study together, but we had conversations about the lectures and lab sessions both of us attended. So I knew him slightly more than casually, but not well.
March arrived, and my organic chemistry professor scheduled our mid-term exam. It was imperative that I do even better in the second semester class. I holed up to get ready for it.
The night before that exam, I got a call from Dave, who asked if he could come over and compare notes from our genetics class. I told him I couldn’t give him that much time and why, but he soon showed up at my door anyway. He wasn’t carrying books or notes.
I was irritated and somewhat confused, but he came in, saying he would be brief. We talked for a few minutes; my irritation grew when he didn’t seem to pick up on my urgent desire to get back to my exam prep. I left him briefly to go to the bathroom.
When I came out, he tackled me and threw me onto my bed.
Dave lay on top of me and held my hands tight so that I couldn’t fight him or push him off. He began to fumble with my clothes, intent on removing them. He said not a word.
I was 26. I was terrified.
I kept saying, “Dave, you don’t want to do this. Whatever you want, it isn’t this.” Clothing askew, I struggled to get out from under him. Finally he relented.
Without a word he went back through the kitchen to the front door, unlocked it and left. When he was gone, I sat there, dumbfounded, shocked, and trembling.
It took a few minutes before I realized that he had planned the whole thing: while I was in the bathroom, he went around my apartment and double-locked the doors, unplugged the phones, and closed the blinds.
The only person I knew who might listen to me was my organic chemistry lab instructor, whose name I don’t recall. I had never spoken to him outside of class, but he seemed smart, reasonable, and kind. I had no phone number for him, but I called the lab, where I knew he often worked late, and I asked if he could come over right away. I must have sounded hysterical. I gave him directions.
When he arrived, I told him what had just happened and said I wanted to call the police. He convinced me not to do so. He said – what else? – that it was a “he said-she said” situation, and that the police probably wouldn’t believe me because I had opened the door to let Dave in. And I hadn’t been raped.
Confusion. Rage. Shame. How had I missed observing this potential danger? Why was my judgment that bad? I knew that Dave would likely pass his pre-med requirements and go on to become a practicing physician. What might he do to some female patient when he got her alone, a woman who trusted him to examine and treat her? More immediately, how would the university authorities deal with him? And what would he say or do to avoid the consequences?
My instructor friend convinced me to keep this to myself and go back to studying. He said the ordeal the police would put me through wasn’t worth it. And my organic chem exam was the next day.
After he left, I cried, but not much. I slept not a wink that night. I tried to focus on the formulae and characteristics of the substances we’d studied, but it was impossible to concentrate. By morning, exhausted, embarrassed, and wretched, I realized I couldn’t possibly take the exam. I approached my chemistry professor and pleaded for a few more days to study, but I couldn’t tell him why. I was given an additional two days.
The event affected me not just that night and the next morning, but for the rest of my life. Eventually I took and passed the exam, but barely; and I knew the schools to which I had applied wouldn’t admit me with a low grade in that course, because the composition of many medications included organic compounds. Always an honor student, I was also ashamed of having that grade on my record. My plans crumbled. I was a mess. Course by course, I lost interest. I got my lowest grade ever, in genetics, but I was numb.
Bad enough, yes? But the situation wasn’t over. It wasn’t over for months.
For the rest of the term, Dave stalked me. I would glance at the door to the chemistry lab, and he would be standing there watching me through its window. I told my lab instructor each time I saw him there, but Dave would disappear by the time my friend went out into the hall to confront him. I would sit on the grass in the spring sunshine to study near the life sciences building, but, feeling uncomfortable for some reason, I often looked up from my books to find him standing not far away. Watching me.
I began to assess my surroundings all the time for vulnerabilities that would give him a chance to silence me permanently.
I developed a phobia about going out on the balcony of my apartment or even having the drapes open, for fear that he could access an apartment across the pool from mine and take aim from its balcony, where I would be an easy target if he wanted to shoot me. This was Texas, after all.
I started the rounds of interviews at medical schools around the state, but it was a half-hearted effort. It was no use. My confidence fell, my GPA was trashed, and none of the schools wanted to admit me in that shape.
By May all I wanted to do was to graduate and go. Get on with my life, figure out what to do next, and never see Dave again.
Fortunately, I had far more credits than necessary to get my bachelor’s degree. My Plan II advisor assured me that I could graduate if I wanted to, without completing any other courses. Any way to avoid being on campus sounded good to me.
Somewhere out there, I suppose Dave Small finished his pre-med work, went through medical school, and became a physician. I would never know if he attacked others, but I dwelled on it anyway.
I never told anyone else what had happened. Not my parents, not my husband. What was the point? Texas had no anti-stalking law. Nothing good could come of it. I would be even worse off if I spoke up.
I swallowed my rage and disappointment. Six years later, after my marriage to a sweet man ended, I entered law school instead. But I never forgot.
Oh, and here’s the kicker. Thirty years later, in a conversation with my next-door neighbor, I learned that she had had an experience that was so similar it was stunning.
She had been in a pre-dental school program when her stalker began to follow her. She not only dropped out of the program but also moved to another city to get away from him.
He followed her there. She reported him. Nothing happened. She moved again.
She’s married and lives in Houston now and works as an investigative reporter. But he’s found her again. He parks in front of her house and watches so that she can’t miss seeing him from her kitchen window. He leaves her notes telling her how much happier she would be if she were with him instead of her spouse.
Unlike me, she wasn’t silent, and she still isn’t. She’s called the local constable so often about him, though, that the constable’s staff has informed her the deputies will no longer respond to any call from her number. She knows they don’t believe her. They think she’s crazy. He’s always gone by the time they arrive.
It’s unfair… that one allegation, purported to be unsubstantiated, can ruin a man’s life. But how fair was it that my neighbor never became a dentist, and I never became a gynecologist? That my marriage failed, that I developed a years-long eating disorder, that my silence and guilt ate me up?
A Stanford University study says that only about two per cent of cases involving a woman’s report of a rape or sexual attack are determined to be false. Still, most women don’t report this kind of trauma, knowing what kind of response they are likely to get. No. These events remain buried, and their power to lacerate endures. The stories seem untellable and unending, specific to each but familiar to many. Ho-hum. Booor-ing.
The #MeToo movement may have started shifting society’s attitudes, but the narrative paradigm hasn’t yet changed to consider how the happy conclusion may not really be the story’s end.
Oh, yes. The President says, “If it was that bad, charges would have been filed immediately….” Nearly forty years ago, on the word of a 15-year-old girl?
Pardon my prejudice. I believe it’s well-earned.
PLANNING A NOVEL VS. SUNDAY BREAKFAST
By Laura Elvebak
Sunday breakfast at my house has become a tradition that my adult son and I anticipate at the end of each week. It has taken me a long time to realize how to perfect my method. One Sunday morning as I put together the ingredients, bought in advance, I compared meal preparation to writing.
Our Sunday morning menu is always the same, even though our meals are different. We each have varying tastes and appetites. The two separate meals have to be ready at the same time. Just as in writing, the motivations and actions of two opposing characters will end at the same time, but with their own separate results.
Both of our Sunday breakfasts involve eggs and meat. He gets six eggs scrambled with diced red onion and red and green peppers, and a third of a Jimmy Dean regular sausage roll. He folds this mixture in four flour tortillas, with a bacon strip thrown in. For his beverage, he drinks sweet tea.
My meal consists of three eggs scrambled with the diced onion and pepper mixture, with added mild shredded cheddar cheese. Plus, two bacon strips and two slices of rye toast on the side. And, of course, coffee.
The trick is to get all this cooked and ready at the same time. Like writing, you want to present a variety of flavors to the reader—dialogue, description, action, etc. This is where organization, timing and preparation are critical. First I make the coffee. Then I make sure all the ingredients are on the counter for easy access, and so I don’t forget to add them. The frying pans are lightly sprayed with oil. The rye bread goes into the toaster to be toasted at the last minute. Four tortillas are ready on a plate while the pan is pre-heating. A mixing bowl, a whisk, a cutting board and a carton of eggs are nearby.
The sausage and bacon are cooked in separate frying pans. While the meats are cooking, I chop and dice the red onion and peppers on the cutting board. Six eggs go into the mixing bowl and are whipped with most of the diced vegetables. These ingredients get added to the pan of cooked sausage.
Meanwhile, the bacon strips must be regularly turned so they don’t burn, but still get crisp. While they cook, I scramble three eggs with the whisk and add the remaining vegetables. When the bacon is done, the strips are put on paper towels to drain. (Like editing, this leaves the bacon crisp without all the unnecessary and unwanted grease.) The bacon grease is then poured into a jar to be set aside and the egg mixture is added to the pan to be lightly scrambled. At the last minute I add the cheddar cheese. The lever is pushed on the toaster.
By this time, the six-egg mixture has been stirred regularly under low heat so they turn out soft-scrambled, not hard and tasteless. They are emptied onto a plate. The tortillas are heated separately in their own pan and placed on top of the scrambled eggs to keep them warm. Four crispy bacon slices go on top.
The three scrambled eggs are poured onto another plate. The toast is lightly buttered, coffee is poured. The sweet tea is iced.
The meal is served.
Compare that to writing your novel. The ingredients you need to have in the beginning are the characters – their differences, motivations, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses, and their goals. Also the setting and the time period. This is not necessarily a fixed outline, although it could be. But these are the ingredients you need while you plot and before the story takes shape. A blank page is like an empty plate. You can stare at it forever, hoping it will one day satisfy you. But like every good meal, it needs a variety of ingredients to add flavor and spice to the meat of the work. Then mix it all and let it cook, until your book, like your meal, ends up at the right time and place.
The Writer’s Toolbox
Timeline: A Writer’s Best Friend
Every writer develops stories in different ways. Some outline, some write from scratch. Some let the characters develop, and the plot emerge as they write. Others might draft three or four chapters before they decide it’s time to step back and determine the flow of the story. I’ve tried all of the above and other approaches too, but always come back to, and finally settle on, outlining.
In a perfect world, my ideal story will be mapped out with all questions and issues resolved before I write the draft.
Regardless of your approach, you will need to validate the events in the lives of your characters. Your main characters have background events that may or may not be included in the final version. These events are important, regardless of inclusion. You want to ensure, for example, that your antagonist (let’s say he or she is a serial killer) was in a certain location at a certain time when he or she claimed their first victim. You also want to make sure he or she was not six months old at the time of the murder.
Adding a timeline at some point in your story’s development can be most useful as part of the writing process. What you use to create a timeline is a matter of choice.
I’ve used a Word document in the standard outline form and Post-It notes on a whiteboard, but a template I created (and am continually “tweaking”) in Excel has proven its worth and stood the test of time. If you Google the phrase, ‘Timeline in Excel,’ you’ll find more examples than you’ll know what to do with. The truth is, figuring out which one best fits might be the greatest challenge.
I hope to spare you that research time.
I’m a proponent of providing examples because I believe giving advice without suggesting how to implement that advice falls well short of being effective. It’s like your doctor telling you to lose weight before sending you on your way without recommending the best approach.
For the moment and the sake of this blog, consider me a caring doctor.
Here is my “prescription” – the columns in my timeline template:
- Event Month
- Event Day
- Event Year
- Time of Day (Estimate)
- Time of Day (Precise)
- Event Character
- Event Character Birthdate
- Event Character Age
- Details (a short summary of the event)
- Event Location
- When does the event become known?
- Notes (a free form column to expound on event details, ask questions, or brainstorm
If you’ve used Excel, you’re likely aware of its flexibility and power. Using drop-down lists, tables, and calculations, I’ve saved considerable time by filling in the columns in my template.
For instance, I created a character table in a separate sheet and use a drop-down to select the Event Character. This keeps me from having to refer to a separate source of characters. I use drop-down lists to select Event Month, Day, and Year.
You’ll notice I listed two Time of Day columns. In the Estimate column, I use a drop down list of 24 values corresponding to the hours of the day. This is a ball park time for when the event might occur. In the Precise column I enter the actual time the event occurred, because multiple events are likely to occur within a given hour and it’s essential to list them chronologically. Are both necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but to each his own, and in the words of actor Fred Dryer who starred in the TV series, Hunter, “works for me.” I’m probably dating myself but you get what I mean.
The character name table includes birthdate, which allows me to set up the calculated column to show the character’s age at the time of an event. This allows me to verify that the CEO of a company is not four years old, for example.
Before I progress too far into the story development phase, I like to create a drop down list for my scenes or chapters. This allows me to select from the list to enter it into the column showing at what point in the story the event become known. For instance, the event date and time our serial killer won’t become known until later in the story, after the protagonist investigates (and hopefully finds and stops the dude).
The Data –> Filter tool in Excel is a powerful and valuable assistant.
Once I fill in as much of the timeline sheet as I can, I can select a certain value or values from the column and display them.
- Filter by character to track the events in their life.
- Filter by date to see what events occurred on that date.
- Filter by scene or chapter to isolate the events that will become known at that time, which allows me to start drafting that particular scene or chapter.
- Validate that my character’s age jibes with the event, and check the time to ensure the facts of the story are presented at the appropriate points; . . . all at the touch of a button!
Another benefit to this timeline manifests itself during the brainstorming phase. By filtering on an event for a certain character, I can create previous and/or subsequent events for any character I believe will contribute to the plot. This determines the flow of the story.
For example, I might have an event, ‘John discovers a dead body.’ From this I can brainstorm and create previous and subsequent events for John as well as other characters. Who is the person? Who killed him or her? How did the body get there? When was the person killed? Did anyone witness the murder? Placing characters in a location and time will help to determine hints, clues, and witnesses.
I find using the timeline approach to be more fun than, and almost as creative as writing the actual story.
Isn’t it “time” for your timeline?