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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Chicken or egg? Character or story?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I'm starting something new, which is perfect for what I wanted to do here, which is to share a bit of each of the steps of writing a novel. I'm doing this mostly as an experiment. I usually write completely alone, without even talking about it with anyone. I tried something different once, giving out finished chapters to friends one at a time as I finished them. I didn't want comments, I just wanted to know what it would feel like to have someone looking over my shoulder as I worked. It was an interesting experience and the book came out quite well. Somehow, knowing that I had immediate readers, kept my inventiveness at a pretty high level. That book was CRAPSTOWN, which should be out soon. Now, I'm going to see what it's like to discuss the process of a complete book as I work. I'm curious what it will feel like to share the bits of craft I use as I move forward.

So at the very beginning, what do I start with? Character? Story? Can you separate the two? For this book, I'm starting with a character in a dilemma. The story will evolve naturally from the playing out of the dilemma. The character is defined by (1) the kind of guy who would get himself in the dilemma and (2) the kind of guy who has the deep character that can get himself out of the dilemma. I'll talk about deep character a little later, but notice how, at least for me, it's not character or story that I usually begin with, but a braiding of the two. If you want to get an idea of what I'm talking about, read some Eugene O'Neill. I'm thinking of something like 'A Touch of the Poet' where the story is not so interesting and the main character is not so interesting but you put that character, with his pretensions of nobility, in a story where those pretensions are destroyed, and you get dynamite.

To think of story and character as entirely separate things is to diffuse the power of both.

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