Monday musings: Inside the shell of character

I love buying eggs from my next-door neighbor.

Aren’t they lovely?  So many different colors! On the outside, anyway — inside, eggs are eggs.  Lisa has at least four varieties of hens running around her yard, maybe even five or six.  It’s so much fun to look out my kitchen window and see them scurrying to and fro in search of bugs and other good things to eat.

We used to have chickens, too, but they eventually went into chicken retirement.  (You can read about that here.)  They provided not only eggs (and amusement), but also food for thought.  Click here for a link to a blog post from a few years back that was inspired by a little backyard observation.

That’s the best kind of observation, really, isn’t it?

So what does this motley dozen nesting on my kitchen table tell me today?  Well, perhaps that despite our outward trappings–race, nationality, gender, faith, age, political leanings, etc.–on the inside, where it really counts, we’re all the same.  As a writer, I’ve learned that it’s the inside of my characters that counts, too. Whether I’m writing about a girl on an adventure at sea in 1835 (THE VOYAGE OF PATIENCE GOODSPEED), a mouse who dreams of being a secret agent and the fifth grade boy who helps her out (THE BLACK PAW), modern-day stepsisters on the receiving end of a spell gone terribly wrong (ONCE UPON A TOAD), or a whole cast of moms and daughters who end up reading the classics together (THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB), it’s the heart of the matter that’s most important.

Sure, I need to pay attention to details like dress and appearance and mannerisms and all that.  It’s part of my job (and a very fun part, I might add) to make the window dressing as interesting and alluring as possible.  But what is it that really connects us to those who live out their lives on the written page? What is it that makes some characters wrap themselves around our hearts?  Think Charlotte and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.  Or India Opal Buloni in Because of Winn-Dixie.  Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  

It’s what’s on the inside, isn’t it?  It’s their hopes and fears and worries, their dreams and yearnings.  Those “inside the egg” things that each one of us can relate to, and that ultimately connect us all.  So when you’re writing, be sure to crack open that shell and breathe life into your character from the inside.

Give your character a heart, and it will speak to the heart in your reader.






First draft blues

rollerbladeI’m flailing away on the first draft of my next novel here, which I liken to trying to navigate through an unfamiliar house on roller skates, blindfolded. 

To cheer myself up, I asked a group of writer friends to share their analogies for the process.  Feel free to add your own to the list – the more the merrier!

 “Writing a first draft is like starting off on a long journey in your car, and even though you don’t know your destination, your annoying GPS says, ‘recalculating’ at every turn you make.”   — Mary Jane Auch

  “Julia [Durango] says ‘it usually comes with a heaping side dish of revelation and discovery’ — and a pile of steaming mussels even though you thought you were ordering the lamb.  At least that’s my experience in both writing and ordering food at a restaurant in France.  Bon appetit!!!!”  — Andrea Beaty

 “Writing the first draft is the process of discovering everything you left out or got wrong in your outline.”  — Fred Bortz

  “Writing a first daft is like driving through a howling snowstorm. Your headlights pick out only a few feet of the snowy tunnel ahead of you. If you go slow, don’t stop, and keep just a bit of the edge of the road in sight, you might make it without slipping off into a ditch or crashing into something large right in front of you.”   — Shutta Crum

 “Writing a first draft is like going to a foreign country without knowing the language. There is much pointing and gesturing and humility involved.  Fortunately, it usually comes with a heaping side dish of revelation and discovery.”  — Julia Durango

  “First drafts are like that high school dream. You know the one. You’re back in the 10th grade, and you’ve forgotten a whole semester’s worth of homework, and you have to stand up and give a presentation.  Oh, and you’re naked.  Every mistake, every fault, every personal flaw is going to be exposed. Yup.  It’s like that dream. Only real.”  — Kersten Hamilton

 “Writing a first draft is like stepping off a cliff and hoping the story will catch you.”  — Rukhsana Khan

 “Writing a first draft is like trying to assemble a giant jigsaw puzzle without getting to look at the picture first.”   — Jo Knowles

“Writing a first draft is like stumbling blindfolded through a labyrinth chasing cave creatures who are doing their best to get away from you as fast as they can. You can’t make a noise because if you do they will shut up and you will never find out their stories. You work really hard at listening and soon you start hearing something that sounds like a story.  When you think you have enough you stop in the middle of the labyrinth and start scribbling like mad, even though you can’t see a thing.  You get used to the darkness and you learn to avoid the drip from the ceiling.  Just when you think the pages are stacking up and you’re halfway there, the cave creatures laugh at you and change directions and you find out the drip was the most important thing in the story after all.  Now instead of a labyrinth you’re really following a water cycle and everybody’s got gills but you.”   — Uma Krishnaswami

  “Writing a first draft is like heading to New York from Chicago, and suddenly discovering that you really want to go to San Antonio.”  — David Lubar

 “Writing a first draft is like knowing you need eggs, lemon juice, and melted butter to make hollandaise, but that you will have to find the hen, the cow, and the tree in order to assemble your ingredients. And once you find them–they will not be in the same place, of course–you will have to use every bit of wit and charm and energy you can muster in order to get the hen, the cow, and the tree to part with their goods. Once you figure out the proportions and technique, you will realize that you wanted a bechamel sauce after all, and you will need to start all over again.”             — Susan Patron

 “Writing a first draft is like bungee jumping off a bridge—halfway down you think, ‘What the hell am I doing and is it too late to back out?’”  — Mary E. Pearson

 “Writing a first draft is like trying to get into a room that is neat and orderly, with everything in its proper place. First, you have to figure out how the door unlocks. Then it’s so haaaaard to push it open.  Finally, you slip through the doorway and get a delicious glimpse of that glorious room when BAM!  Another door slams in your face.  After a big sigh and a few donuts, you settle in to figure out how THIS door opens . . . . .”  — Dian Curtis Regan

  “Writing a first draft is like not knowing there’s a monster until you’re in the belly of the beast.”   — Cynthia Leitich Smith