For some people, starting a new novel is like that scene in “The Sound Of Music,” where Maria’s tra-la-la-ing on a mountaintop, arms spread out, spinning in delirious joy.
If you’re like me, though, that blank white page isn’t cause for bursting into song.
Bursting into tears, yes. The endless possibilities are overwhelming, so many possible plots and characters to choose from—and what about voice, structure, tense and…and…and…
In order to banish the insanity and keep your freak-outs at bay, it can be tempting to hurry up and create a nice, tidy plot that you can stick characters into, much like those Velcro and felt landscapes in preschool classrooms. That’s certainly a way to go about it. And it just might work for some people.
However, I suspect that the difference between a great novel and a good novel may lie in how much freedom we give our characters.
All the fancy plot twists in the world won’t mean a thing if your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist. The best way to get them to care is to create a character who inhabits her world in such a way that the experiences she has (i.e. plot) are true reflections of her inner journey and her nature. This is how you avoid the pitfalls of the contrived plot, the unearned ending, the story that just won’t sing. So how do we do this?
First, we need to listen to our characters. This is impossible when we’re yammering on about what we want their story to be. Doesn’t your character have a say in what happens in her life?
While I believe it’s necessary to have some general idea of where you’re going with a story before you begin, the key is to be willing to throw that whole plot out the window if you have to.
Focus on your character, allowing the plot to come from her.
Put her in a situation—then see what she does.
Maybe you want her to kill someone but she shows an unexpected reluctance to go through with the deed. See how that reluctance plays out. Get to know your character so that you can get in her skin.
You can do this by:
- creating playlists,
- interviewing her,
- daydreaming about her life,
- journaling in her first-person POV about other characters and events in the story,
- writing scenes from the POV of other characters so that you can secretly watch her and see what she does.
These are just a few ways you can get out of your head and into the heart of your story. Chances are, you’ll come up with unexpected ideas that are specific to your character and her story, not the regurgitated plot lines of other YA books.
Something else might happen, too. Something magical.
You might feel as if you aren’t writing the story anymore, as if you are simply a conduit. If you’ve ever started writing and it suddenly morphed in amazing, unexpected ways, my guess is that this was a moment in which you—conscious of it or not—handed over the reigns to your character becoming, as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, “the designated typist.”
When we become the designated typist, we let go of our need to control our novel and create space for organic work that radiates the kind of honesty that draws readers in and makes them fall in love with the characters and plot of your story.
So put the outline away, take a breath, and see what happens.
The result may just make you break into song: the page is alive, with the sound of…
You get it.
When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City.
Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real (Henry Holt, 2014).
Her other novels include Exquisite Captive (Balzer + Bray, 2014), the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, and I’ll Meet You There (Henry Holt, 2015). She is the founder of Live Your What, an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find her on Twitter @HDemetrios.
Writespace Writing Center
Heather will be teaching up to six intermediate and advanced students during six sessions from March 11 to April 15 at Writespace in Houston. Note: Writers arrange their own most convenient classroom times and meetings with instructor. About the class:
|Feb. 3, 2015 release date!|
“Sometimes it feels like a story isn’t working. The voice might feel off, or the plot seems contrived. Perhaps scenes are reading dull or your main character feels paper-thin. You might have a brand new idea that you can’t seem to get off the ground because every plot point you think of feels like a cliché.
“When a book isn’t working or a new project feels stunted, we’ve often lost sight of our work’s protagonist and secondary characters. Rather than listening to what our characters want and need, we have imposed a pre-conceived notion of what we think the book is supposed to be.
“Regardless of whether you tend to write from a plot or character standpoint, being able to tune into your characters in order to find the truth of your novel is a useful skill for any writer.
“In this six-week workshop, we’ll look at how to plot or revise your YA novel through exercises that will help you get out of your head and into the heart of your work. In addition to weekly writing exercises and submissions of your work for critique, we’ll consider new ways to access your character, such as through taking field trips with him or her, by creating music playlists, and other unique methods. Along the way, we’ll look at how this shift affects all elements of our work including voice, dialogue, structure, theme and—of course—plot.
“This course is designed for intermediate to advanced writers working in any genre within YA. If you’re looking for a challenging, dynamic workshop that will take your writing to the next level, this workshop is for you.
“Please be prepared to spend at least three hours a week on short reading assignments, your own writing, and online discussion. You will be asked to turn in two 10-page submissions of your novel for critique and to read two YA novels to enhance our discussion (if you’d like to get a head-start, please read the novels The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2011) and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Speak, 2011).
“Together, we’ll create a supportive community through reading one another’s work, discussing the assigned reading, and sharing insights garnered from our exercises. Expect lively discussions and lots of fun!”
Enter to win a five-to-ten page critique of your English-language young adult manuscript by Heather. Eligibility: international.