With each new piece of writing, a writer learns more about the craft and something about him/herself. Having just wrapped up my middle grade novel, Coop the Great – a story told from the viewpoint of an aging dachshund – it’s time to take stock of the lessons learned along the way.
With ‘Coop’, I knew some of the plot before I started writing. By some, I mean I knew how the story would begin, and I knew how it would end. The middle was fuzzy, but I figured it would reveal itself once I started writing.
Wrong! I plowed ahead and wrote the first third of the book, then stalled completely. I didn’t really know how to get my characters to the end. Finally, after floundering for many days, I put the draft away. I realized that I had homework to do if I was ever to finish the book.
Although the problem seemed to be a plot one, I thought it might have more to do with my characters. I didn’t know them as well as I should. I consulted two books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. In the front matter to their books, Ackerman and Puglisi detail the importance of building characters from the ground up and equipping them with unique personalities based not only on strengths, but also flaws.
Armed with suggestions from the two books, I developed a 4-page character sketch of my protagonist, Cooper. On the plus side, I wanted Cooper to be resilient, curious, and resourceful among other things. On the flawed side, I needed him to be cynical, anxious, emotionally distant and resigned to his lowly position in life. Ackerman and Puglisi write about the importance of “emotional wounds”. These are emotional scars from incidents in the past that influence the present. I dug deep into Cooper’s past to isolate one.
Once I had character sketches for Cooper and others in the story, I spent a week plotting a detailed outline that would carry me to the end. I knew the characters intimately by then. I knew how they would react to each other and to obstacles I put in their way. I plotted each chapter in detail, outlining not only what happened, but how it influenced each character. My outline was 20 pages.
Guided by the outline, I wrote the rest of the story. It got me through the difficult middle stretch and to the end. But – and this an important but – I didn’t entirely follow the outline. As I came to know my characters better, fresh ideas surfaced that altered the story-line. If I thought they strengthened the story, I integrated them into the fabric I was weaving.
Some writers – the pantsers – think that character sketches and outlines limit their creativity. They prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and write without planning much or at all. For me having a map at the start of the journey saw me to the end. Sure, there were detours, but at least I knew where they were taking me.