Archive | October 2016

Ready for NaNoWriMo!

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Writing a novel is never a speedy process for me, but I’ve always found the initial first draft can be done quickly once my momentum gets going. As long as I have my story worked out beforehand, my characters defined, and my outline arranged into rough scenes or chapters, then my first draft flies. The longest part of the whole process is rewriting and perfecting from the second draft onwards – that bit usually takes me several years.

With my last novel, I managed to plot the outline and draw up the character sketches in only one month, back in October 2012. The first draft was completed two and a half months later. I’ve always wondered if I could do it faster, but I haven’t had the chance to try because I haven’t started another new novel since then.

Since I became a writer I have been aware of a project called National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo. Every November, thousands of writers around the world join up, and each writer tries to complete a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 1,667 words a day, or 12,500 words a week.

The event was started by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999, and in that first year there were 21 writers. The following year there was a website created for it, and 140 writers signed up. The year after that saw 5,000 signing up, including overseas writers. The numbers have grown to over 400,000 in the last decade and a half.

Of course, many people write novels without actually joining the group – I’ve done this for years – but joining the group sounds like fun, and the camaraderie aspect of writing a novel alongside 400,000 other writers has a lot going for it. The writers who join up inspire and encourage each other, even as they track their daily progress. Those who hit the target of 50,000 words by November 30th are said to have “won” and this can be a huge personal victory, especially for those who have never before managed to complete a first draft.

For those of us who have already written novels, we know how lonely the writing process can be, tied to our typewriters for months on end, bleeding all over the page, so I’m looking forward to plunging in with a good heart and buckets of enthusiasm to share around.

So why have I never done this before? When I lived in South Africa, the month of November was my busiest time of the year, filled with preparations for the annual pantomime in the theatre where I used to work. So, while I was aware of NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t practical for me to consider doing it. Last year – my first November in Australia – I was close to finishing my lengthy work-in-progress and I didn’t want to be distracted by the next novel so I didn’t join in then either.

But this year is different! I have a rough one-page synopsis ready for my next novel. I wrote it – together with a tentative first chapter – back in January for a competition, but until two months ago I hadn’t looked at either of them again. I have been thinking about this new novel a lot though, and a month or two back I decided to change the time frame from the present day to 1955, because I wanted to write it as an historical novel. This meant reworking the entire synopsis as well as completely re-motivating all my characters who are still recovering from the devastating Second World War a decade before.

I have now spent October working on my characters and outline. The original first chapter is no longer relevant, because it doesn’t fit the new story, so I’ll be starting that from scratch. I am finally ready for NaNoWriMo. When November starts tomorrow, I plan on “giving it a go” as they say in Australia.

If you’re a regular reader here, please allow me to apologize in advance: you probably won’t hear much from this blog in the month of November, but once December starts, I’ll report back on how it all went – the good and the bad.

If you’re a writer, have you decided to join NaNoWriMo this year?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

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Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.