Wednesday, June 15, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: Decide vs. Discover, by Cynthia Newberry Martin

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of the TeachingAuthors hold MFAs from Vermont College: Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, Mary Ann Rodman, and me, Carmela Martino. On Monday, Mary Ann kicked off the series with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View."  In today's guest post, Cynthia Newberry Martin shares a technique for figuring out what happens next in your story. Following the post, I have included a related Writing Workout. Enjoy!

Decide vs. Discover: Let Your Characters Tell You What Happens Next

I used to think I had to know what was going to happen before I could write.  During my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), Diane Lefer, my advisor, wrote to me:
I would suggest thinking less ABOUT your characters and instead just trying to put yourself in their shoes and see where they take you.
I copied this sentence on an index card and taped it above my desk. These twenty-four words worked like scissors, cutting me loose. I thought I had to know. I thought I had to decide, but instead I could discover. I could just place the characters in a scene and see what happened.

I learned to wait.

Granted, it’s a subtle difference: decide versus discover. I mean, we are the writers. But here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on now, there are three trailers off to the side of the road. They appeared because one of my characters needed a place to live. Who was living in the other two? Well, a son appeared; he could have one. So who was living in trailer #3? I didn’t know. I kept writing. I wrote “Who is living in trailer #3?” on a card and taped it next to the other card. Weeks went by. What I discovered by waiting and not deciding was that no one was living in trailer #3.

And, as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.

Cynthia Newberry Martin lives in Columbus, Georgia, the home of Carson McCullers. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or will appear, in Gargoyle, Contrary, Storyglossia, and Numéro Cinq. She is the Review Editor for Contrary and currently in her third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts working toward her MFA in Writing. You can find her at Catching Days.

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Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing this approach to plotting. I especially like your advisor's advice to put yourself in your characters' shoes and "see where they take you." One way I've done this is to keep a journal written in first person, from my character's point of view. In a blog post last summer, I talked about the journal I kept while writing Rosa, Sola. Below is a variation of the Writing Workout I included with that post.  

Every writer has a different method for figuring out the next turn in his or her story. Tune in Friday 6/15, when Sion Dayson, another Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) colleague, will show us another technique for inching forward in the dark. 

Writing Workout
Create a journal where your characters can tell you what happens next.
  • I prefer using a paper journal that I write in with a pen. Something about physically pushing the pen across the page allows me to connect with my characters in a different way than typing on a keyboard.
  • The journal doesn't have to be expensive. It can be a simple spiral notebook or composition book. (These are usually on sale in August for back-to-school.)
  • I also like personalizing the journal's cover. I typically paste a photograph that represents something important to the character, or that is an image of the character herself.
  • Once I have my journal, I use it to ask my character questions. I write the question at the top of the page. Some examples: What are your likes/dislikes? What is your biggest problem or fear? What do you REALLY want? How did you feel when . . . .
  • My character "responds" to the questions in the journal. (Of course, I am the one writing the response, but I write in first person as though the character is speaking through me.)
  • I've used this technique for both main characters and important secondary characters. The process has yielded interesting and unexpected results, often helping me figure out "what happens next."
Happy Writing!


The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Excellent post. I love venturing where my characters take me. There is a delicious element of surprise when they take over the direction of the story.
I like your exercise Carmela. When truly puzzle, I find it sometimes works to post the question as Cynthia did and then use the pen in your non dominant hand to answer it.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Pen and Ink. I've heard of the non-dominant hand technique, but I haven't tried it yet myself.

Lia Keyes said...

I love the idea of keeping a casual, handwritten character's journal as a way to connect with characters.

I have wrestled with the "decide versus discover" methods of writing and haven't found the perfect balance (maybe we never do, as each manuscript presents unique challenges). In mysteries, you need to know the backstory so you can unveil information at the right time and place, I thought, but then I read that even Agatha Christie didn't always know before the end of the first draft. It was the second draft in which she cleaned things up. The first draft was a discovery draft. Very freeing! Thanks for the great post.

Sheila said...

Thanks for these tips. Discovering is more like real life than deciding. The real world can change our lives in an instant. How we respond, what we discover about our ability to cope builds character. Maybe when we write, discovering our characters' strengths and weaknesses helps us create "real" people.

Sandra Stiles said...

I taught an after school writing club at my middle school this last year. I used the book Spilling Ink with the students. It had them do a similar exercise where they interviewed their characters. I did the same thing with the characters in current WIP. I had put the WIP away as we neared the end of school and testing. When I pulled out my journal, all I had to do was re-read my character interviews and I was ready to begin again.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing the Agatha Christie story, Lia. I, too, like the idea of a "discovery draft." It sounds so much better than "rough draft" or "first draft." :-)
Sheila, I love your statement about discovering being more like "real life." For me, the discovery process is part of what makes writing fun.
Sandra, thanks for sharing. Isn't it great to learn and practice alongside your students? That's one of the things I enjoy about teaching.

Ellen Reagan said...

I love the distinction made here between deciding and discovering. Thinking of a novel as a collaborative effort between an author and her characters is an exciting way to approach the blank page. Thanks for posting!

Andrea Mack said...

Carmela, thank you for putting into words what I think is my approach to creating characters. I've never spent a lot of time deciding on their traits in advance, instead preferring to learn more about them by discovering what they do in the story. A great post!

cynthia said...

Hey, thanks for all the great comments. And thanks to Teaching Authors for hosting the VCFA Blog Initiative and to Carmela for posting my piece. Happy Writing!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for your comments, Ellen and Andrea. And Andrea, the words are actually Cynthia's. (Hi there, Cynthia!) I just added the writing workout at the end. :-)