Creative blogging and character development
Project: Raven Novel is rooted in an experiment designed to change my writerly spots. That effort took on a life of its own, and now it has me on the cusp of something I never thought I’d dare: writing a novel. Here’s what happened:
For most of my writing life, I’ve focused on literary fiction, which a friend of mine describes as “pretty words, everything sucks, and nothing happens.” I wanted to get away from that. In part, because it’s a really small slice of the book-selling market, but mostly because I wanted to stop putting my mind into dark, depressing places for hours and hours every day.
It’s hard to write unhappy characters and not be unhappy yourself. I figured I was halfway home when that same friend read my first book, Noon in Florida, and said “even though everything sucks for these people, stuff happens.” Now I just needed to deal with the “everything sucked” part.
So, I set a goal: Write a fun, plot-driven story in which everything didn’t suck.
Once I had a goal, I needed a plan
A goal without a plan is just a wish. I didn’t come up with that. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did, and I think it bears repeating.
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This was especially true in my case. I mostly write micro and flash fiction. I’m used to cramming stories into small spaces. I’m not used to writing full-length stories — let alone novels.
I’ve published close to 100 pieces of micro and flash on this platform, and the majority are either 50 or 100 words. (If you want to check them out, I’ve posted most of them in Jim’s Shorts.) Long story short, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of writing a short story of something like 2,000 to 3,000 words.
But that was the goal. Not a piece of microfiction. Not a piece of flash. A short story. Since that goal intimidated me, I chopped it into smaller pieces. I decided to write my story as a flash fiction serial.
That way I didn’t have to worry about coming up with thousands of words at once. I only needed a couple hundred. I knew I could do that.
I built a schedule into my plan
This is due to an article about goals I read on James Clear’s website. For me, this was the key takeaway:
If you want to be the type of person who accomplishes things on a consistent basis, then give yourself a schedule to follow, not a deadline to race toward.
— James Clear
James Clear’s schedule had him publishing three articles a week. That seemed like too much for me. I decided my schedule would be publishing one installment of the story a week on my Substack.
To make sure I stuck to it, I sent out a notice to my followers saying I would be working on a new story and publishing one installment a week. Just like that, I was committed to practicing in public. There was no going back. It was terrifying. And it left me with only one problem.
What the heck was I going to write about?
I was living in Alaska when all of this was happening, and it was September. September, in Alaska, is the beginning of the end. The days get shorter and shorter.
The temperature drops. The snowline on the mountains marches lower and lower. The birds leave, and the bears look for a place to hibernate.
It won’t be long before the sun will barely make it above the horizon. To keep my spirits up, I decided to set my story somewhere warm and sunny. Because I’ve always loved Mexico, it was easy to pick a destination.
Some of the most fun I’ve had in Mexico has been scuba diving, so I decided scuba would be a bit part of the story. As for characters, some of my favorite stories — and ones that got the best audience response — were stories I’d written about my daughter, like this one. Just like that, I had a book centered on a father-daughter duo living in Mexico.
Now that I had my setting, I needed to make sure “something happened.” I needed a conflict to drive the action. I kicked around a few ideas, but in the end, I settled on having the daughter get kidnapped.
What could be better than a kidnapping? It’s got to be one of the worst fears parents have, and in a story revolving around a father-daughter duo, a kidnapping would ratchet up the tension. With that settled, I sat down and started writing.
Raven and the Mango Roadtrip
I stuck to my schedule and churned out 600 or 700 words a week on the story that came to be called Raven and the Mango Roadtrip. Also — and this is important — I was having an absolute blast. It wasn’t long before I passed the 3,000 words. Not long after that, I passed 6,000 words.
I was publishing other things at the time, but the Raven story consistently elicited the most response from my readers. The story took a few unexpected turns on me, as stories do, and in addition to the scuba diving and the kidnapping, there were snakes and dreams and bus trips, carne asada tacos and chicken soup. There was not, however, much structure.
Stuff happened all right, but it wasn’t that organized. And since I hadn’t planned anything in advance, I left a couple of plot holes along the way. I papered them over and kept going.
By the time I typed THE END, the story clocked in at just over 10,000 words. A long short story. Way longer than anything I’d ever written before.
It was also a long way from perfect, and, to be honest, I didn’t care. The goal had been to write something fun in which something happened, and I had done that. Even better, people liked it.
Gone were the days of people saying to me, “This is really well written, but are you okay?” My mom wasn’t making comments like, “I thought you had a happy childhood.” Instead, she and other readers were saying, “When is the next one coming?”
It was definitely a win. I was all set to declare victory and move on when several friends asked me the same question on the same day: When are you going to turn it into a novel?
Creative blogging: the keys to the kingdom
The first thing I did was panic for a few months. Then life got busy, and now, suddenly, it’s been 9 months since I finished the Raven story. In those 9 months, I’ve learned two things:
- I have no idea how to go about plotting a novel.
- I need to know my characters a lot better.
To help with the first problem, I’ve been reading about journeying heroes and saving cats. Reading all this doesn’t get me into my characters’ heads. In fact, it took me away from the writing and into rabbit holes watching YouTube videos with Neo and Joseph Campbell and various other personages (heralds, mentors, etc.) who aren’t in my story.
It all felt rigid and mechanistic, and it made me not want to write. But, happily for my novel-writing dreams, I found what I think will be the key that will unlock my characters’ lives for me. It’s a book titled Creative Blogging by Marilyn Flower.
In her book, Marilyn details how when she was revising her novel she blogged as her characters, and in the process “unearthed juicy details — deepening character and conflict — perfect for [her] novel revisions.” As Marilyn writes, “blogging as your characters is a right-brain, subconscious mind process. It’s designed to get you into a free-flowing creative zone.”
This is what I have been looking for. This was a way to get to know my characters as people, not as cogs in a machine. Yes, I realize I need story structure.
But if I don’t know my characters, all the structure in the world won’t matter, because I’ll have cardboard cutouts walking around bumping into pieces of story framework jutting out from the walls. And so I’ve decided to follow in Marilyn’s footsteps and blog my way to turning Raven and the Mango Roadtrip into a full-length novel. There’s only one step left.
I’ve got to actually do it!
I’ve bought Marilyn’s book and created a publication to house the blog posts. Everything is in place…except for reading the book. And writing the posts. And writing the novel.
Just like when I started the story, I’m starting the novel with a commitment — two posts a week. Maybe more, but definitely two a week at Project: Raven Novel following the process laid out in Creative Blogging. (The first two are already up.) I can’t wait to see where this process takes me!
- “A goal without a plan is just a hope.” Make a plan.
- Make a schedule, too, and stick to it.
- Creative blogging is a right-brained, free-flowing way to learn about your characters.
- I’m committing to 2 posts a week in Project: Raven Novel as I blog my short story into a novel. Follow me to find out where it goes.