Let’s Get Down to the Nitty Gritty

I never used to do this, but whenever I’m hesitant to write, I try to peel off that top layer of procrastination to get at the core. I’m sure that’s part of my growth as a writer.

Anyway, more times than not, the hesitation comes from the fact that I don’t feel I know enough to write effectively. The common “fear questions” that creep up are good indicators of this:

“What if a reader thinks the characterization is shallow?”

or

“What if the reader knows something I don’t and throws my book in the fireplace because I couldn’t get my facts right, but then quickly tries to put the fire out because they realize it was an ebook and now their Kindle is burning-up-oh-my-God-please-my-brand-new-ereader-aarrrgaggaahghahg?”

My recent encounter with this is when I sat down to write scenes for Wolf’s Tail. I don’t believe I’ve actually posted a synopsis here, probably because it’s changed so much, but the story involves a group of Japanese villagers that escaped a great famine in Japan during the 1830s and wound up founding a settlement in Alta California, specifically in the Western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

As of last week, I knew I had a handful of major characters in that group; the rest were scenery. But as I began to write, I found that characters acting against a faceless background were not interesting. I needed to sit down and learn more about this clan as a whole.

As our friend Nacho would say:

Nitty Gritty

So came the rash of questions: Just how many people are in this village? Would the whole clan have up and left Japan or only a portion (it was illegal for peasants to abandon their farms)? How old is everyone? What are their marital and familial relationships? What are their duties in the village? And so on and so on…

So many of these questions are important because their answers govern the behavior of my major characters.

The best place to start is a high level view. How about an org chart?

Okami Scapple

To put this together, I found a tool created by the Scrivener developers named Scapple. It’s similar to a mind map, but in my opinion, is much more flexible in that you’re not forced to have a central node to branch off. The app is a little rough around the edges at the moment, but I anticipate it will improve over time.

And now, friends, I would love to hear how you approach peeling off your procrastination layers.

What freezes you up and have you found a way around it?

-Phillip

25 thoughts on “Let’s Get Down to the Nitty Gritty

  1. Much of what we create for our characters never makes it into the novel, but as you point out, it’s important to know the details nonetheless, because these specifics do indeed ‘govern the behavior’ of our characters. I sometimes find it a bit overwhelming to keep track of it all, even with character and setting sheets. Thanks for linking to that Scapple tool. I’ll definitely check it out.

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  2. I just keep writing, knowing that I’ll get something wrong. But, then again, I’m unpublished! (Or, not selling much.)

    But you are right, you need to have a sense of the village dynamics before you can have your characters acting with or against those dynamics. I tend to keep the details vague otherwise I start to contradict myself.

    In the end, you’ll have to do what works best for you. Different for each writer. Scapple looks neat.

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  3. Love Scapple. But you knew I’d say that, right?

    Character motivations screw me up. I’ve actually found interviewing them can really help draw out their motivations, and if I really me get into it, help me get some insight into their personality when they come under pressure.

    I also freeze up when writing new bits of description. So this is the docks…its a dock…with the sea close by…which is blue..! I just have to power through those moments and trust that I can fill in the blanks and create a memorable setting later on. I find my brain does figure it out eventually (usually when I’m in the shower!) and I rush to the keyboard to note it down so I don’t lose the inspirational thought.

    Good luck with the clan!

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    • Those folks at Literature and Latte really know how to solve some problems…

      Character motivations. Yeah. I do like your idea of interviewing the characters. I don’t do that enough. And I hear you about description. I’ve heard reading poetry helps. I need to get on that.

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  4. When I over think I get bogged down. There is a reason the advice is to write, write, write. This is the only way to develop meaningful characters and plot. There are some you will need to throw away, but the rest will be worth the wasted effort.

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    • John, I would write a book on over-thinking, but I’m afraid I’d… well, you know.

      You’re a wise man. Those are good points about writing and writing. I think part of my problem is organization. I’ve heard of being organized, but it’s rare that I actually experience such a thing.

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      • Yeah. I look at authors who lay out big scene story boards etc and at the end of the day the best thing for me is to write and then keep notes on characters as I go along. You know like; blond hair, surname smith, used to be married to sally. That kind of thing. It lets the plot develop instead of forced.

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  5. Great post, Phillip!! (And what an awesome chart!) This is so true: “The hesitation comes from the fact that I don’t feel I know enough to write effectively.” When I’m stuck, I also ask myself questions like you do, which help me go deeper. “What about his mom? What influence did she have?” “What do I need to know about her past?” “Why am I having trouble picturing this?”

    Free writing also is a help when I get stuck or a character feels flat. I have a secondary character who is supposed to be a foil for one of my main characters. But I didn’t really know the guy, so I wrote a scene in which he starred. That scene will never go beyond my notebook. But it helped me determine how he would move and behave in a scene I wrote for the book.

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    • Thank you Linda! Free writing is great and something I often forget to pull out of the toolbox. Thanks for the reminder on that one. That idea of writing a scene is brilliant and one I saw in Nancy Kress’ book on Characters.

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  6. Pingback: Weekly Recap – January 24th, 2014 | Phillip McCollum

  7. That’s an impressive org chart. The folks at Scrivener are terrific. Unless I’m writing a short story, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to MS Word for writing.

    My procrastination almost always stems from self-doubt. It occurs if I’m stuck on any element of a given WIP. To get past it, I might pull out another project and work on that. Sometimes though, I’ve found sucking it up and just diving in to the offending piece is the best strategy. I might work on a different element of the story, and that often gets my mind going and helps me chip away at the problem. When all else fails, I call on one of my trusted critique partners for suggestions.

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  8. Oh. my. god. An org chart! Of course, in my day job, org charts abound; yet, I never thought to use one for story writing. It’s a brilliant idea. I’m most afraid that a reader will find holes in my story. Gathering details, whether or not they wind up in the finished, is key but can also be daunting. You’ve got a lot of good references here, which I will definitely look into :)

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