Friday, December 4, 2009

Writing Exercises--Not Just for Beginners

I’m embarking on another rewrite of my novel this week. I think this is number five, though it’s hard to decide what constitutes a rewrite. I’m always fiddling with things, of course, at the sentence level, but for my purposes, a rewrite starts with a list of things I want to address that often seep throughout the entire novel. For example, in the last revision, I worked on toning down the romantic interest between my protagonist and her boss because their relationship just wasn’t very believable the way I had written it and took too much attention away from the main plot of the novel.

This time, I’m working on developing my protagonist a bit more. “What?” you ask. “On draft five?” Yes. You see, it takes a long time to really get to know the person I’m dealing with here. On the first draft, I was just flying by the seat of my pants, with no outline, not even a basic idea of how the book would end and just a vague idea about who my characters were. As each draft progressed, I learned more about what my characters want, what they fear, what they love. As their traits emerge, I’m trying to connect all the dots, to make their actions throughout the book consistent with who they are. I’m certainly not looking to create stereotypes here, not at all. These are characters who, much like the people in our own lives, are able to surprise us now and then by acting completely “out of character.”

So, this is where writing exercises come in. Before I start a new draft, it feels a bit like I’m walking in the dark, though the room isn’t completely black, not like it was in the beginning. Oh, maybe draft 2 gave me a candle. Maybe by #3, a flashlight. I think now I have a nice floor lamp with a low-wattage, energy-efficient bulb. But, still, I bump into things.

I don’t just dive into the novel and start revising. I spend days, more likely weeks, just freewriting, just thinking about my character on the page, typing as fast as I can about what has happened to her, what still needs to happen, and most importantly, how she feels about all that. And, I do some writing exercises. I dig out my books from grad school and from when I’ve taught writing, and find ideas to get me thinking.

My favorite book of fiction exercises is titled “What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. This book, and many others like it, contains an exercise on characterization that urges the writer to complete a list of basic information about her characters, the idea being that these items (such as hobbies, education level, family status, etc.) will affect the character’s actions. This morning, I’m re-reading an essay by Robert Boswell that I had tucked into the Bernays and Painter book called “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark,” (Poets & Writers July/August 2008) that says questions like this are just too simplistic, at any stage of the writing process. Boswell urges writers to go farther, to ask things like “What did your character forget to do this morning?” and “What stupid thing kept him or her awake last night?” These kinds of questions are more useful to me right now at this stage of the process, so that’s what I’m doing this morning, putting myself in my protagonist Louisa’s head and answering questions like this.  As for what “stupid thing kept [me] awake last night,” I can tell you it was rewriting this novel, but I wouldn’t call that stupid.

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