Playing God

“For me, a great character starts with a great name.”

You’d think after decades of writing that I’d have my process perfectly honed and locked down. But writing a novel-length work of fiction in a new genre continually forces me to develop different writing muscles. 

I think the hardest thing for me on this project has been creating entirely fictional characters. Normally, my characters are at least loosely based on people I know but that wouldn’t work for JEZILLA. I couldn’t shoehorn real people into the story; the characters had to fit the material.

For me, a great character starts with a great name. I think of a cool name or suggestive nickname and then picture the type of person it would fit. In JEZILLA, the protagonist Rocky is a pun on the movie character Rocky because she’s a fighter. Then I made her the physical opposite of Rocky — a petite girl. For Sanji, I conceived a somewhat nerdy character with the screen name ninja_guy (who obviously dreamed of being a real ninja) and then gave him a real name that was somewhat of a palindrome. I gave him exercise-induced asthma as an obstacle to that dream. It’s not a big one, I’ll admit, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to fight bad guys when your windpipe is seizing up. Mack was derived from a Mack truck and therefore a part of her is mechanical. For Sisko, I pictured a rock star or similar type of “sexy bad boy” and the name just popped into my head.

My second tool for character development is dialog. The interaction between the characters gives me insights into their deeper selves. And that’s how I had my latest epiphany about JEZILLA.

I’d just finished re-writing a scene that was important to the plot. I’d already re-written the thing a dozen times but it still felt forced and unnatural. Even worse, I was really starting to dislike my protagonist. Frankly, I was sick of her temper tantrums. Writing from her point of view was emotionally draining but I’d been writing her like that for over two years and this was the first time I’d had that feeling. What was going on?

I set the writing aside and just let the problem live in my head for a few days. It occurred to me that I was two-thirds of the way through writing the book. The time I’d spent with Rocky was cumulative, so things that might have seemed cute in the beginning were annoying as hell now. (Funny, it seems to work that way with real people too.)

I had a moment of panic. Had I created a bad character? No. She was just too one-dimensional. Rocky was all anger and id. What were her good points? And why would Sisko put up with her being such a bitch all the time?

20180126_134915Rocky needed more layers. So did her friends. I had to go back and expand earlier scenes, add introspection from Rocky, and possibly write a new scene or two. I also needed to give Sanji and Mack more agency. They were too passive. And Sisko needed a really compelling reason for being friends with Rocky in the past and putting up with her abuse in the present.

I ran through all of the scenes from JEZILLA in my head and noted opportunities for introducing more information about the characters. Then I filled a notebook with several pages of notes and I was back in business.

When Not Writing is Writing

“No one can really teach you how to write a novel. You learn by doing it.”

Here’s my shameful secret: I’ve been working on JEZILLA for almost two years and I’m not even halfway done. I’ve had lots of stops and starts and re-writes and diversions into other projects along the way. At this rate, George R. R. Martin will be finished before I am. (BTW, Neil Gaiman thinks that’s okay.)

No one can really teach you how to write a novel. You learn by doing it. Two years after I had the idea for JEZILLA, I know a lot more about writing than when I started. From a technical standpoint, the novel has required a great deal of research on pacing and plot structure and worldbuilding. But I also have a clearer vision for my characters and a better understanding of my world. You can’t just pull that stuff out of thin air. Sometimes you have to let ideas gestate until they’re fully formed.

Whenever I hit a snag on the book, I get off the keyboard and just think about the characters. Who are they? What do they want? What’s some cool stuff I could make them do? As I’m falling asleep at night, I picture them going about their lives. What are they up to?

Sometimes the process yields more questions than answers, but questions are good too. If I’m asking them, it’s likely that my readers will be as well.

I had a major setback in September due to some health isues and I lost forward momentum on the book. But now that things are settling down, I’ve been re-thinking my writing strategy. Until now, I’ve done most of my writing on weekends or during breaks at work. It adds up to only a few hours a week. Maybe I can speed things up by talking instead of typing.

I purchased a USB headset microphone and configured Windows Speech Recognition for dictation. Maybe I can just talk about a scene, lay down the broad strokes, and then go back and fill in the gaps. I’ll let you know how that works.