I’ve had a few conversations lately with writers about the “getting to know you” stage of writing a new novel. It’s the place I’m at with WILLA. Still.

Part of me wishes I could nail down these first few chapters and fly on with the story, but the way I see it, it’s important that I take the time necessary to introduce my protagonists, Willa and Neil and Joseph, and their main supporting cast. Not time as in “number of pages,” but time spent writing what will probably prove to be extraneous bits of conversation or introspection that I’ll need to either move deeper into the story or cut altogether, because that’s how I get to know my characters.

Not primarily by filling out plotting charts ahead of time, although I will admit that doing so this time around with Willa and Neil generated some good story ideas. No, it’s not until I’m spending time with these characters on the page, giving them situations in which to respond and intuit and solve puzzles and misspeak themselves and misunderstand and show grace and get jealous and hurt and blessed that I really get to know them, know their insecurities, fears, hopes, and goals, and something else I think is very important–their sense of humor. And their voice. As I wrote in a recent email discussion with a friend:

But I find that I need to write a character for a while before I can really know them, or their hang ups, or their goals and motivations. I might think I know, filling out all the charts anyone wants to throw at me, but until I start writing, I can’t REALLY know. Just like hearing about a person from a third party might make you think you know them, but until you meet and spend time with them face-to-face, you can’t know how many misconceptions you’ve built up.
Not to say that thinking through this stuff ahead of time isn’t important. It is. I’ve done it the other way and floundered around and wasted time. Not easy to find the balance. I wish I was more of a plotter, or able to simply pull it off by the seat of my pants. I fall uncomfortably somewhere in the middle, feeling straight-jacketed by too much of the one, and hopelessly adrift and befuddled with too much of the other.

So, I keep reminding myself that it’s OK if the going is slow right now. It’s better than rushing this process and ending up with a sprawling, unfocused mess. Been there, done that.

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