Some web surfers are quick to doubt any and all advice from strangers on the Internet, especially if the advice doesn’t come at a price. After all, who in their right mind takes time out of his or her life to help others, without expecting anything in return?
To allay any suspicions about the advice I’ve shared, I interviewed published author and writing professor James Connor.
During our interview, Connor and I discussed three parts of the novel writing process: story building, character building, and revision.
Before we get into Connor’s advice, check out this quote from George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, a bestselling epic fantasy novel series. The quote comes from an interview in which Martin says that there are two kinds of common writers: architects and gardeners.
In short, architects outline their work before they begin writing their narratives. They have a firm grasp on even the smallest details they plan to include. Meanwhile, gardeners have a general idea on what they want to include in their stories, which they watch unfold as they write. To be a good writer, do you have to have to strictly follow the way of either an architect or a gardener?
Connor: A good writer has to be both.
Some people are more suited to one type than the other, Connor went on, but it takes utilizing the skills of both types to be a good writer.
A writer might have outlined his entire story, but as he writes and builds his story, he should be willing to deviate from that outline if inspiration strikes and reveals a new way to develop the plot that wasn’t apparent before.
On working to create believable and interesting characters, Connor shared two pieces of advice. The first:
Connor: Pay attention to people.
This advice isn’t limited to people; you should also pay attention to your surroundings.
Connor shared a story in which he visited a store at 42nd Street in Manhattan. Inside, he saw a few goods that were par for the course in a New York City souvenir shop, like keychains of the Statue of Liberty
Then there were the not-so predictable souvenirs, like the plastic models of asscheeks and strap-ons that lined the store’s walls.
Imagine Connor’s surprise when he had gone in expecting “I love New York” hats and T-shirts, but instead found plastic asscheeks and strap-ons for sale.
According to the store owner, said Connor, those items were for the crossdressers that came in to shop.
This bizarre experience could easily be of use to an author looking to write a believable crossdresser, or a scene involving a weird trip to the store.
The lesson here is that observing real people can inspire you to include their mannerisms into a character of your own creation. Observing real places can be just as effective for creating a setting.
Generally, all you need is a set of eyes and something to write down what you observe.
Say you want to get a feel on how college students act at a football game. It might be worth a try to attend a real one and observe your surroundings.
Or maybe you’re working on a scene involving a wealthy neighborhood, and you have no idea how wealthy people dress because you’re poor as dirt and wouldn’t be trying to make a living as a writer otherwise. If possible, take a walk or drive through the closest wealthy neighborhood in your area and observe the attire of passerby.
If you’re writing a book involving children and need a reference for their behavior, I’d stick to YouTube videos or something similar. In this day and age, depending on how you look, you’re likely to end up in cuffs if you get caught prowling the streets and watching children from afar.
The second piece of advice:
Connor: Know your character’s inner psychology.
How do you achieve this? You have to outline, Connor said.
Connor, who teaches Creative Writing and Fiction Writing at Kean University, usually has his students outline their characters before writing a short story or several chapters of a novel.
The process is meant to have the author know their characters intimately and give them depth, which helps to make the characters as human as possible.
Connor gave an example with Vampires in the Vatican, a novel he’s working on. The protagonist, an FBI agent and psychologist, suffers from panic attacks. Despite knowing better as a psychologist, the protagonist self-medicates with alcohol. By giving the protagonist flaws that contrast with his occupations, Connor has added to that character’s depth.
Another character in the novel is a police captain, whom Connor wasn’t afraid to label as stereotypical; he can be described as macho, which is a trait one would expect from your run-of-the-mill police captain. However, this police captain happens to be so achluphobic that he habitually leaves work early to get home before night falls.
As with the FBI agent, the police captain is given some depth through his character flaws.
Once you’ve written and laid everything out, Connor said, a lot of pruning follows. This leads us to the final topic Connor and I discussed.
What can be said about revision in the writing process that hasn’t been said before?
Professionals and aspiring writers alike preach about how vital revision is to the writing process, but many writers wet behind the ears neglect this step nevertheless.
According to Connor, this problem is a result of impatience.
Most people, especially young writers, said Connor, think they can just sit down and start writing. What they believe they end up with is the perfect novel, Connor continued, but in reality, it is merely their first draft.
Connor: Writing is about revision. All that matters is that the draft improves with time.
As mentioned before, the first draft isn’t the end of the journey for the writer. The revision step is just as important, if not more so.