The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part One

I learned a lot about the writing process while writing my first novel, The Field, but learned even more from writing Midnight House.  Over the next several weeks, I want to share my writing process, the publishing process, and the marketing process to help you succeed in publishing your book as an indie author.

The Idea

While working on The Field, I initially had no intention of turning it into a series.  After all, if I was going to publish the book myself, maybe one book was enough—something to check off my list of things I’ve always wanted to do.

And then, I let a few people read it.

It wasn’t the published version, but those who read it liked it and offered their notes.  When I met Kathleen, who became my editor, she read it and encouraged me to turn it into a series.  

So, I started to think about how I could do that, and a few years before The Field was a published novel, I began to work out possible story ideas for a second novel.

I knew that I wanted the characters to be older, but I was unsure of the second book’s storyline.  But I wrote down several ideas.  Like all brainstorming/pre-writing sessions, some of it was worth keeping, but most were ridiculous and would eventually be left in the dust.

The big question I had for myself was if I should continue the story from the first book or do a standalone with the characters doing something unrelated to the first story.

I wanted to do something with Kyle that was sports-related, which ended up happening, but Daniel at the early phases had no real place or direction in the story.  He was a school newspaper reporter.  He was in ASB.  He was this, that, and the other thing, but he didn’t feel grounded in the story.  

Early Development

That’s when I decided to dig deeper into the minds of my two main characters.  Who were they before the events of The Field?  How did those events change them not just externally but internally?  

Doing a deep dive into who your characters are, what makes them tick, and how traumatic events can impact them going forward can help you shape more dimensional and grounded characters.  So, as I sketched out Daniel and Kyle after the first book, I discovered things that would give Daniel and Kyle stronger story arcs in the second book and give the other characters material to work off of.  

I had to decide how old they would be in the second book, which would inform what they were able to do and not do in terms of their ages, and I also started to brainstorm ideas for new characters they would encounter in their new story.  I also had to decide who from the first novel would carry-over to book two and what they would be up to at that point.

Now that I started to flesh out character arcs, I developed story ideas that would be interesting and provide the needed elements of action-adventure that are key elements of the series.  This is where things get fun for any writer since, at this stage, anything and everything is a possibility.  I chose Redding locations where I felt different action pieces could take place and worked through various scenarios.  Some over-the-top, some less so.

All the while, I’m thinking of how the main characters, other characters, the overall story, and these action moments will all come together in a clear and compelling narrative. 

But I was nowhere near that stage yet.

Notes, Notes, and More Notes

Part of the early brainstorming and development process is writing down your ideas.  All ideas.  I have my Notes app on my phone filled with snippets of dialogue or scenes that I thought of while I was at work.  A legal pad by my bed in case an idea strikes me at 3AM.  And a file on my laptop for ideas so I can type furiously as the ideas flow.  

I’m a writer that has a hard time just sitting and waiting for ideas to come.  I usually am doing something when they hit me, so having a way to jot down ideas on the go is much better than saying to yourself, “This is a great idea. Can’t wait to get home and write it down!” (SPOILER ALERT: The idea will probably be gone by then.)

Dozens of Note app files.  Lots of legal pad pages.  More than one Word document (I started breaking ideas into separate files by character).  Somewhere in all these places was a complete story.  Now I had to start taking these ideas, these fragments, these notes, and crafting them into a narrative.

Next week, I’ll take you through the outline process and the first draft’s early stages.  See you then!

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Don’t be Afraid to Give Your Protagonist Negative Traits and Flaws

I recently came across this clip of Daisy Ridley being interviewed about her character Rey in the latest Star Wars trilogy, and her perspective piqued my interest.  Have a look:

As a writer, I respectfully disagree with Ridley’s view on characters not needing flaws or faults and her perspective that Rey doesn’t have any.  Why are character flaws and negative traits important even in a protagonist?  Let’s talk about it.

Flaws and imperfections give a character depth and dimension.  They humanize the character and create empathy or sympathy between the reader/viewer and the character.  Flaws give the character something to overcome or cope with as they work through the narrative.  

Just like in real life, there are external events we have to deal with, and at the same time, we have to work through any internal issues we may be facing.  Sometimes the two can conflict, which can be frustrating in real life but makes excellent story material.

A perfect character is a BORING character.  You want your characters to feel relatable, and negative traits are a great way to do that.  This doesn’t mean they have to be evil or do illegal things.  There is a wide range of emotions, traits, and flaws you can give a character that will help your reader see them as a person and not just a vessel through which a story is being told.

Think of some of your own personal traits that might be seen as unfavorable or even your own flaws.  Do they make you a bad person?  Probably not.  How do you cope with them?  How do you work through them daily?  By incorporating internal struggles and flaws, you can add dimension to your characters. 

Think of your favorite film, TV series, or book characters.  Are they perfect?  Probably not.  Do they have flaws?  More than likely, a lot of them.  But even with these faults, flaws, and struggles, we identify with them, root for them, empathize with them and watch the character evolve as the story unfolds.

You know, that whole character arc thing.  Pretty important.

Daisy Ridley’s proclamation that Rey has no flaws starts with the writing.  If J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson created a flawless character for Ridley to play, that’s an error in judgment on their part, not Ridley’s.  She’s merely performing what’s on the page and interpreting it based on what the director – and Disney – wants.  

Rey should have flaws, doubts, imperfections, and negative traits.  It doesn’t make her a bad person; it doesn’t make her less likable.  It HUMANIZES her, giving the audience someone to follow and root for.  

These issues enable the character to have an arc, to strive toward being better as they traverse the obstacles thrown at them by the story.  If you listen to the clip, Ridley lists several things that she feels people can overcome – “anger and jealousy” – and she’s right.  They can.  That’s called personal growth in real life.  Or a character arc in a story.  

Just like the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy.

If you look at the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, Han, and even Darth Vader all have negative traits and flaws, but they overcome them throughout the trilogy.  We watch, and we have a vested interest in who they are and what will happen to them.  Is it because they’re perfect, flawless humans?  Quite the opposite.

So, as you create characters for your stories, remember that it’s okay to have them possess negative traits and have flaws.  This gives them something to work on, something for the audience to identify with, and presents the reader/viewer with a dimensional character worth their time.

Apologies for the late post. I will be back to the earlier post time next Sunday!

When it Comes to Your Writing, Who’s Really in Control?

Where do you want your characters to go…or where should they take you?

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your outline for your novel or short story and you’re ready to sit down and write.  Your fingers are poised over the keys of your computer – or typewriter, if you’re old school – you take a deep breath, and dive into the story.

As you start to dig into story, you realize that your main character is taking you down a storyline that you didn’t outline or anticipate.  In fact, it’s almost as if your protagonist is in control of what they’re saying and doing.  It’s as if you are only there to transcribe the events as they unfold.  A mere voyeur to a story you hadn’t even planned.

This is a good thing!

I’ve had these moments happen many times while writing.  I think I’m going to take the story one place due to planning ahead, and then the main character takes the wheel and we go off on a weed-infested dirt road that I never even knew was there.  It’s at these moments while writing – especially during the drafting process – that it’s best to just sit back and see where things go.

Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end.  Sometimes you’ll learn something new about the character and the choices they make that can have an impact on the story and in turn the character’s interactions with others in the story.  The key during these moments is not to fight the creativity taking hold of your brain and your fingers as the rapidly pound the keys to get every sentence down as fast as possible.

And it’s not only a great method of discovery for your main character.  Supporting characters can benefit and develop greatly during this process of creative surrender.  Maybe you have a character who you feel isn’t strong or dimensional enough; but while writing a sequence that includes them they begin to say things and do things that make them far more interesting and instrumental to the overall story.  That’s always an exciting time!

While I do support writing outlines, I also believe that as creative people we must allow ourselves to give into the temptation of going where our roadmap doesn’t.  Even if you do return to the road you previously paved, you may have learned a thing or two that can benefit your characters – and your story – in the long run.

Have you ever let your characters take the wheel and take your story down a trail you never expected? Leave a comment and let me know!

Writing Tip #9: Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist

You’ve created the perfect protagonist for your story.  They’re smart, funny, liked by other characters, and best of all, you love them, too!  Now it’s time for them to enter the world of your story and there’s a fear deep inside you that wants to protect them at all costs.  After all, this precious creation should travel through the ebbs and flows of the story unscathed and come out on the other end as perfect as they were when they started their journey.

This is one of the worst things you can do.  Not just as a writer, but to your audience.

Your audience – whether reading or watching your story – wants to go on a journey with your main character.  They want to experience, grow, change, and be moved by what happens to your main character. If your character doesn’t go through some metamorphosis over the course of the narrative, an audience will grow bored with what they are reading or watching.

And you definitely don’t want that!

Don’t be afraid to rough up your main character.  Put them through traumatic events.  Shake them up emotionally, psychologically, physically.  It’s through how they deal with these types of events that their character arc grows over the course of the story (which is just as important as your plot points and story arc).  You want your main character to wind up in a different place on the final page of your script or novel than they were at the beginning.

Audiences expect that.

Exercise:

Watch your favorite movie and write down what the main character is put through over the course of the story.  Where were they at the start of the film?  Where are they at the end?  Write down 5 to 7 events over the course of the film that caused them to change as a character?  Are they a stronger character because of these events?

Now that you’ve taken the time to see how it’s done, you can apply these same principles to your main character.  Don’t be afraid to take them to the limits to see how they handle stressful, dire, or deadly situations.  It’s through these events that your character becomes a more realized and dimensional being for audiences to root for.