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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

New Book Update: Back Off Author, Characters Need to Do It Themselves


back off writer's block canstockphoto10113712 (2)At the Loft Pitch Conference in November, the two agents I pitched to invited me to send pages. (Woo-hoo!) I told the agent who wanted 100 pages that I’d just finished a major rewrite and wanted to polish the first 100 pages before sending them to her. She said “Of course. Take the time you need to send me your best work.”

As I’ve revised, something has been bugging me about chapter 6. I tweaked it and tightened it, but it still wasn’t right. In the words of Robert Olen Butler, it didn’t “thrum,” (what a manuscript does as it hums along on track); it “twanged.”

The POV character, Kat, has gotten herself into a satisfyingly difficult situation. But I realized she’s just waiting to be rescued. Even though I sped up the pace of the scene so it wasn’t quite so obvious that she didn’t have a clue what to do next, Kat was passive at the end of this scene.

“Okay,” I thought, “so she can’t be rescued by some tertiary character we’ll never seen again. So how do I get her out of this situation?”

The lightbulb finally sputtered on. It isn’t a question of how do I get Kat out of this situation; it’s a question of how does Kat get herself out of this situation. When Kat takes agency for what happens, the appearance of a tertiary character is more interesting. Kat has conflicting emotions: she’s relieved when someone comes to help, but she’s also annoyed.

The conflict has grown from just how can she get away from the two minor bad guys to the internal conflict she has about the guy who shows up to help her. It also introduces a touch of conflict between Kat and her dad, who she thinks sent this guy. Kat is nineteen and at nineteen, you do not want your dad sending someone after you just because you got yourself into a little bit of a jam.

I also realized that the challenge is not how do I make the situation worse for a character (and how do I get her out of it). Instead the challenge is to figure out how the character makes the situation worse for herself before she gets herself out of it.

puppet-master writer's block canstockphoto3481856A while back, I wrote about the resistance that can come from our reluctance to hurt our characters. Now I see that we can worry less about this if we stop manipulating characters and making bad things happen to them. If things just happen to our characters (because the puppet-master author makes them happen), the characters are victims.

The conflict and pain our characters endure needs to be caused in part by their own flaws, misjudgments and strengths. Frodo endures all that he encounters on the way to Mordor not only because Sauron is evil (and Boromir is weak and…) but also because Frodo stands up in council and says “I’ll take the ring.”

Lord of the Rings couldn’t work if Gandalf or Strider had said “Make Frodo do it. His uncle found the ring, so it’s his job to get rid of it.”

So Kat’s dad sends help not just because he’s an overprotective parent. Kat asked him for help. Of course, she’ll see it as “I asked for a diversion, not a chaperon.” Which I think is more interesting than “Daa-ad, you’re butting in again.”

My current challenge is to look closely at the conflict in my novel. If a character is suffering solely because things just happened to her/him (because I decided to create that situation), I need to clarify how the character contributed to bringing the situation on her/himself.

Which is more interesting than just cutting words and tweaking dialogue.

What’s your current challenge in revising or creating?

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