Archive for October, 2009

Go, NaNoWriMo

Monday, October 19th, 2009

trees2It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, wool sweaters are appealing again, and writers everywhere wonder whether to do NaNoWriMo. Each November, the NaNoWriMo organization encourages aspiring writers to celebrate its National Novel Writing Month and pen a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and 30. Word count (or its equivalent page length) is the only goal of NaNoWriMo; the quality of the resulting novel is immaterial.

In the decade of its existence, NaNoWriMo has become both remarkably popular and intriguingly controversial. The NaNoWriMo website indicates that almost 120,000 writers participated in NaNoWriMo 2008. Among them were 12,683 NaNoWriMo winners–those who successfully reached the 50,000-word goal by the November 30 deadline. NaNoWriMo’s detractors take issue with the organization’s definition of “winning.” They criticize NaNoWriMo for encouraging people to write merely for the sake of putting 50,000 words to paper and accuse the project of contributing both to the proliferation of bad writing and to the underappreciation of the novel as a true art form. NaNoWriMo, critics say, encourages to write those who otherwise have no interest in writing. NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on sheer word quantity leaves no room for genius.

I support the NaNoWriMo project, not for its success in generating enormous quantities of “finished” text, but for its success in generating sizable rough drafts, ready for editing. At Beaumont Hardy, I have long encouraged the writing of what I call the “terrible rough draft“–a piece of writing that exists solely for the purpose of productive subsequent editing. In the case of NaNoWriMo, I argue that the 50,000 words are merely one triumphant stop on a longer continuum that will involve a massive edit, another draft and, perhaps, several later edits. These edits and drafts, time-consuming though they may be, tend to become more and more engrossing, as authors refine their ideas, familiarize themselves with their characters, and feel the fullness of their own plots.

NaNoWriMo, I think, should not be an end in itself. Instead, it should be the first stage of a writer’s long and productive relationship with a rough draft. I salute those who choose to do NaNoWriMo this year and wish them happy editing of the 50,000 words they write.

Character Development and Point of View

Monday, October 12th, 2009

In my two previous posts, I discussed character development in hint fiction and character development in a few short words or phrases. The following passage shows a new take on character development. The author describes two characters from each other’s point of view. This technique can be very useful. Developing one character through the observations of another character can serve two purposes–providing a portrait of the character being observed and simultaneously providing a revealing glimpse of the character doing the observing. This method also reveals a character’s own flawed perceptions and preconceived notions, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the true nature of each character.

The unedited passage reads as follows:

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, pooling in thick wooly piles at his elbows. His shoes looked thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along with no clue what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The following is the edited passage.

She stumbled over the old man in the waiting room. His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too senile to notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan pooled at his elbows. His shoes were thick and sturdy and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap. She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him.

The passage with my editing marks follows. My additions are underlined, and my editorial comments are in brackets and italicized.

She stumbled over the old man to reach the last remaining seat in the waiting room. [As the passage now reads, she reaches her seat at the end of this sentence and at the end of the following one. I’ve left only one mention of her seat, in the second sentence.] His legs were stretched out into the middle of the room, and he moved them so slowly that she tripped over them before falling into her own seat. Sophie glared at the old man, thinking he was too enfeebled senile [From what we later learn about Sophie, it seems she would be unlikely to use a word like enfeebled,” even in her own thoughts.] to even notice the confusion he had caused. He wore a pair of jeans, ironed so that a pale crease ran up the front of each leg. Sophie imagined that someone dressed him each morning and. She wondered if he even knew what he was wearing. His gray cardigan drifted mellowly over his shoulders, poolinged in thick wooly piles at his elbows. [“Drifted mellowly” doesn’t convey a clear description.] His shoes looked were thick and sturdy, with thick, sensible-looking soles that and probably kept the man upright as he stumbled through his days. [I eliminated one use of the word “thick.” Because “thick” applies to the soles of the man’s shoes, I also eliminated the mention of his soles.] Sophie felt sorry for him, bumbling along without knowing no clue [Although Sophie would probably use the term “no clue,” I think “without knowing” makes more sense.] what he was doing or who was around him. She opened her book.

The old man sniffed as the girl across from him opened her romance novel. Her chipped red fingernail polish looked cheap and artificial to him. [Nail polish is inherently artificial, so I cut this word. “To him” is already understood from the fact that the old man is looking at the girl and thinking about her.] She wore the rhinestone-studded jeans the old man often saw in the windows of the cheap discount stores near the library. The girl moved her lips as she read. But at least she had stopped staring at him. The old man picked up his ball-point pen and returned to the New York Times Sunday crossword he had been doing before she tripped over him. [I like this surprising ending to the description of the man. We learn a great deal about Sophie and about the man himself.]

Please send me your thoughts or comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

Quick Character Development

Monday, October 5th, 2009

In my previous post, I discussed the possibility of character development in a piece of hint fiction, defined as having a word count of 25 or less. The 25-word limit seemed sufficient for the two types of character development I discussed–establishing three-dimensionality and showing character change throughout a story. Character development is certainly possible in hint fiction.

In this post, I now argue that character development is even possible in fewer than 25 words. Careful word choice and believable dialogue both contribute to character development. Examine the following examples, where character development happens in fewer than 25 words.

Example 1:

Dale held the beer bottle to his lips and spit. “That ain’t my truck.”

In fourteen words, the reader learns a great deal about Dale and the kind of person he is. This type of character development serves to round out Dale’s personality but does not show any character change.

Example 2:

“Well,” Priscilla blinked. “I have my maid do it for me.” She set her teacup down with a gentle tinkle and smiled stiffly.

This twenty-three-word example also serves to develop a well-rounded character. As in Example 1, dialogue and action combine to establish character.

Example 3:

The room suddenly seemed smaller and shabbier than he had remembered it. Jonathan wondered how he had ever thought it elegant.

In twenty-one words, this example demonstrates an interior shift in character. Although there is no dialogue, the character’s thoughts indicate a significant personality change that will be important in the story’s development.

Example 4:

“Hello, Charlie,” she said, leaning in for the kiss he usually gave her.

“Hello.” He turned his back to her, repulsed.

This twenty-one-word example shows character change through dialogue. Although the example contains very few words, the reader witnesses a significant shift in the behavior and emotion of the male character.

Thus, character development is possible in very few words–even in fewer than 25 words. Dialogue and careful word choice are important to character development. Writers who choose both judiciously can develop character quickly and efficiently.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.