We’ve been having novelist Susan Meissner on as a guest blogger for the last several days to talk about “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days.” Yesterday, I invited you all to submit questions for Susan. You did–enough so that she’s taking today just to answer your questions before plunging in again tomorrow on her next installment.
Thanks to all for your kind words. If I have helped you at all, I am thrilled. Before I launch into my next tip on how to make the most of your writing time, I’ll answer your questions.
Randy asked: “Susan, can you post an example of part of an interview with one of your characters?”
Since my character interviews rarely become any part of the text of the story, I don’t always keep them on file electronically. In fact, I usually write them on legal pads because this is done during pre-writing time, when I’m involved with a lot of other things. I often do my interviewing while waiting for something. A flight. A kid. A doctor’s appointment.
But I do have one that is from the book I finished writing a few weeks ago, The Shape of Mercy, which WaterBrook Press will release in the fall of 2008. I have included some excerpts below. This interview is with a teenage girl named Mercy Hayworth who lived in the time of the Salem witch trials. My fictional Mercy was accused of witchcraft but was innocent, as so many real people were back then. Her diary is part of this novel, and though the book is set in contemporary times, she is nonetheless a character. My questions are in bold. When I answered for her, I stepped into her character and answered the questions as if I really was Mercy Hayworth.
What are you afraid of? Pain, loss, being alone
What makes you mad? False pretenses, haughtiness, unkindness
Who did you admire most growing up? Mother. She was gentle, soft, she sang to me. All the time. She made up her own songs.
Who did you fear most? The men in the village. They are always gloomy.
Are you an extrovert or an introvert? I keep to myself. I am not unfriendly, but I don’t expose my thoughts to people. I am transparent only in my writing.
Pessimist or optimist? I believe in hope.
How easy is it for you to trust people? It is hard to trust people right now. People who are afraid don’t make smart decisions. It seems like everyone is afraid.
Do you have any secrets? What are they? I am in love with John Peter Whitlow. Sometimes I think I can hear angels. I think I see their brightness sometimes. No one knows about this but me.
Do you like taking risks? What purposes serve risk-taking? To show off? To have what isn’t yours? I am called to obedience and love. If obedience or love bids me take a risk, that it is what I must do whether I like it or not.
What stands in the way of your happiness right now? How will you get past it? Fear. The village is wrapped in fear. It is strangling the good sense of people who know better. I cannot get past what is larger than me.
What will happen if you fail? God will take care of me. Even if I hang, God will take care of me.
Susan, have you ever written about people you knew? Or wrote characters based on people you knew? And if you did, how did you do your pre-writing in those cases?
Most of my characters are amalgamations of people I know. And you’re right about the benefits of borrowing character traits from people you know well. Crafting characters that resemble people you already know does help you supercharge your writing momentum. I have never cloned an exact replica of anyone I know, they’ve all been pieced together like Frankenstein’s monster (which also makes them unrecognizable and that keeps me from getting into trouble!) so I still use the interview process.
Robert asked two questions:
1. Would a publisher look askance at you if you told them it took you 2 or 3 years to write your first book-even if it is good? 2. I am assuming the speed you are talking about is for the 1st draft. How long does it take you to edit it into presentable material?
Question 1: I seriously doubt a publisher would be put off with any book written in a two-to-three year time frame. That’s quite the average. I don’t really know if a 7-8 year time frame would bother them, either. ‘Cause it’s not about time. It’s about talent. A good book is a good book. Still, rumor has it that publishers aren’t looking for one-hit wonders since they don’t usually make money with an author’s first book and only break even with the second. If it will always take you eight years to write a book, they may shy away from you only because you cannot maintain a reader base with eight years in between your releases. Someone correct me if I am wrong here.
Question 2: I only write one draft. About eighty percent of what I write stays. That leaves about twenty percent that is edited, changed, supplemented, or excised. When I write I edit as I go. For example, I write Chapter One on Monday. On Tuesday, before I sit down to write Chapter Two, I read what I wrote on Monday and I approach it like an editor, not a writer. I spend an hour with it. And then I move on to write Chapter Two. I repeat the process the next day with Chapter Three. When the book is done, it takes a little nap. I leave it for a week or two or three depending on my deadline and then I read the thing with editor’s eyes. I polish the prose, tighten the transitions, remove my pet words and go on a ly-adverb hunt. But it’s all the same draft.
Anna asked two questions, too:
1. So how do you find the voice of your character? 2. What kind of questions do you ask to non-Earth people?
Question 1: For me, my main character’s voice emerges as I spend time with her, asking her questions, plying her for information, imagining her experiencing my day or imagining her experiencing the day of anyone who made the front page of the paper. I have to be vigilant about making sure my characters’ responses don’t morph into mirror copies of my own responses. A great way to make sure your personality stays separate is to take a personality test like Myers-Briggs, and make sure you know YOU. Then have your character take the test. The results should be different. Unless you want your character to be just like you.
Question 2: Whenever we place non humans into a story where they have motivations that drive the plot, we bestow on them human attributes. Disney was a whiz at this. Who didn’t cry when Bambi lost his mother? Of course we cried. We were meant to. I would ask the same questions to a non-human character that I would ask a human character. You want your human reader to identify with your non-human character even if he’s as appealing as Saruman. We have to meet him at some emotional level or we won’t care about him. And as for spending time with a main character with multiple personalities, well, I’d say clear your calendar and meet them all. One by one. Read the book Sybil or watch the movie on DVD. I’d say it’s more than okay for each personality layer to shine through. It’s essential.
I do believe we’ve run out of space, Randy. What sez you?
Randy sez: These are all good questions, but yeah, that’s enough for today. Thanks, Susan, and we’ll look forward to your next installment tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple of those questions were also for me:
Cate asked if Susan’s method is like what I call composting.
Randy sez: Some of what Susan is doing is what I call composting, but my composting is less formal than that. I often get an idea for a novel and then don’t write it till several years later. In the interim, I capture ideas on paper as I think of them. And I let the whole thing compost in my mind. When I’m ready to write, I take a month or two and work through the Snowflake process, which is a bit more formal than what Susan is describing, because I do both character and plot work there. But a lot of what Susan is describing is identical to things I do. I have never interviewed a character, though.
D.E. Hale wrote:
What’s frustrating is when I get to know them, and then find out that they are completely wrong for the story. One time, I needed my MC to have a love-interest, so I started forming a girl for him. Well, once I got to know her better, I found out that she was completely wrong for him. He would not even give this girl the time of day…ha!
Randy sez: This has happened to me. It’s not a bad thing. I’ve had characters I intended to kill who simply wouldn’t die. I’ve had a guy refuse the girl I created just for him and choose a different one. (He made the right choice–she was really The One for him.) You can’t always dictate what your characters are going to do. They are ornery cusses and will do what they want, whether you like it or not. This is good.
All right, enough for today. Tune in again tomorrow, when Susan will continue with more. I will note that, like Susan, I edit the previous day’s work before I write new stuff. So when I finish the “first draft” it is actually a pretty clean second draft. I have my freelance editor go over it and then I do revisions. Because I do a lot of work up front, there is usually not a lot of editing necessary out the back end. I typically do 5 or 6 drafts and send it in. Then my editor asks for revisions and I do another couple and that’s it.