I absolutely tore through the month of April when it came to my writing. I was on fire, setting daily goals and “winning” Camp NaNoWriMo right on schedule, to my deep satisfaction. I had created a habit of waking and writing, and I was feeling like I had uncovered the ultimate secret to how I worked as a writer.
May arrived, and I set another goal for myself, only half as high as the one for April because I was trying to be realistic and I knew there would be more editing coming up. But I wasn’t realistic enough, and about halfway through the month I panicked and vanished and didn’t host a single writing session. I tried to sit down and ask myself how the hell I suddenly felt completely lost, and it always came back to the same thing: I didn’t know where I wanted to go with this.
In general terms, I know who my characters will be and the direction the story is headed, but I don’t have a detailed goal in mind for each book that I figure will be in this series. And worse, I have added new characters since changing the overall tone of the book, and I have no idea what their voices are. I have no idea what LaKeisha’s favorite ice cream is or if she even likes ice cream; I don’t know what is on Jacqueline’s nightstand or what she does first when she wakes up; I don’t have any idea if Winula watches TV or how she feels about Facebook. I don’t know what any of these women would do when faced with a true crisis, I don’t know who is honest and who is a liar, I don’t know what their goals or beliefs are.
Some people have been telling me to get plotting set aside before I worry about these sorts of details, but those are people who look at writing in a totally different way than I do. For me, stories come from the hearts of characters, and putting plotting first is pre-determining what a character will do before you know anything about who they are, or how they would really react to any given event. In my opinion, it’s completely backwards. Depending on who is faced with a difficult situation, completely different things can happen. For example, a monster attacks someone who doesn’t believe in monsters, and that person will treat the battle as if they’re being tricked, perhaps even telling themselves there isn’t actually a monster at all. But if that monster goes after someone superstitious, what happens? Perhaps they know from folklore how to handle it, or perhaps they’re so terrified they freeze up. You see? Even within the binary of believer or non-believer, there are still multiple choices on what could happen depending on if someone is stubborn or adaptable, if they’re brave or panicky, if they’ve been raised to be prepared or if they’ve been raised to doubt.
So the plot is absolutely 100% dependent on me knowing my characters.
But learning who your characters are takes time, and it takes a willingness to do a lot of work that won’t actually show up in the finished manuscript. It takes a certain type of exercise, almost like writing fan-fiction, where you take someone you think you know and run them through different scenarios to see how they react. It takes a kind of commitment, like a friendship.
And I have been unwilling to do that, because I got hooked on the word-count.
I wanted to reach another set goal because it felt so good the first time, and because here was a solid, quantifiable step forward towards finally finishing my book. Character development isn’t something that is measure-able, and if you’re not even including what you write for that type of work in your final draft, it felt to me like it didn’t count.
Which is just simply bullshit. Of course it counts.
Camp NaNoWriMo returns in July, and I am going to be participating again. But in April I just dived right in with my head full of ideas, and this time it’s going to be different. I’m going to spend all of June doing character work, all of it discovering and creating full people, so that when July rolls around I will have fully realized human beings ready to be let loose on the page. I’m going to be patient, and let my people show me who they are. And instead of feeling resentful or frustrated or impatient, I feel excited. I can’t wait to make some new friends.