This has been a busy week. It’s been so busy that I’m actually writing my Sunday post on Sunday!
The quote above is one that I keep in front of me while I’m writing my first drafts. I try to make sure that each character has a purpose in a scene, even if it’s subtle. I guess that’s true for life as well. I wonder if Vonnegut knew that when he came up with this. I mean, I try to make sure that every person has a purpose in my life, whether it’s life-altering or subtle.
What happens when I write something where the character wants nothing and has no purpose? I might be enamored with my descriptions or my language or my characters’ witty banter, but if I’m honest I know it doesn’t belong. Well, better yet, I make it belong. I figure out what someone wants and make that part of the story right there and then.
For example, where you last left Hannah Peck in my WIP, was admitting she WANTED to stay with Grandma Boop and her friends for the summer. It would have been simpler, perhaps, to just have Hannah enjoying her getaway, admiring her childhood summer home, and lamenting her break-up. But if we didn’t know for sure that what she wanted right there and then was basically permission to stay, we — meaning I — wouldn’t care so much about whether or not she gets what she wants. In the next scene we learn…well wait…here’s the next scene (which brings you to the end of chapter one).
“Time to make the doughnuts!” Boop’s voice rang out as if I were two blocks at the beach and she was calling me for dinner, when in fact, she was standing at the foot of my bed.
I pulled my pillow over the back of my head, only to have it wiggled from my grasp and lifted off me.
“That means it’s time to get out of bed, sweetie.”
I opened my eyes and stared into my drool drenched pillow as I pushed up onto my elbows.
“Good morning, Boop.” I heard the curtains on each window swish open, one after another, and then each shade thumped as it rolled to the window tops. “What time is it?”
“It’s time to make the doughnuts.”
“Yes, I heard you but what do you mean?” Boop had a way of saying what she thought sounded good and attaching whatever meaning was convenient at the moment. I flipped around on the bed, twisting Clark’s long T-shirt like a corkscrew around my middle. I closed one eye as a way to remind my grandmother she’s awakened me from a sound sleep, and to keep out half the light pouring in my third floor windows. She patted down each drapery panel as if she were a TSA inspector with a quota. Then, she folded the chenille blanket into thirds at the foot of the double bed. My bed.
“It means it’s time to get moving. You’ve been lying in bed for two days lamenting that shmendrick.”
“I was with Clark for more than five years!”
“Exactly. Now, it’s time to get to work.”
“I told you I don’t need to work this summer, Boop. I’m looking at this as my transition time.”
“A transition to what?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Exactly. You have to work on figuring that out.”
I swung my legs over the side of the bed. “And doughnuts are going to help me with this?”
Boop sighed so deeply her shoulders lifted to her ears and then returned to their rightful place. It felt as if she’d filled the room with her exasperation, which today still smelled of lavender.
“It was a just a saying, Hannah.”
“I’ve told you; I’ll pay my fair share this summer. You don’t have to support me.”
“What kind of grandmother would I be if I didn’t support you?”
I was too tired to haggle over hyperbole. “So there aren’t really any doughnuts?”
“You’ll have to come downstairs to find out. But hurry up or Doris will eat them all.” Boop shuffled through the doorway, her slippers sounding like the sand blocks my kindergartners scratched together during music time. Though still in her pale blue housecoat, as she called it, Boop’s hair flipped up and skimmed her neck, pushed back off her forehead by a slim tortoise shell headband as if she were seven. She’d not yet applied any makeup; an idea she’d scoffed at as long as I could remember. Boop did not leave the house without lipstick. She stopped, turned, and walked back into the room, her eyes squinting with intention. Boop opened the small closet door, and tugged on the light’s chain. The naked bulb lit up the clothes I’d hung on hangers and the boxes I’d stacked on the floor that contained the remnants of a life I’d only imagined. The musty scent leapt out and tamped down the lavender. Boop lifted out the only dress I owned and laid it over the brass footboard, splaying the floral skirt in front of me as if it were a decorative fan.
“Wear this today,” she said. “We have plans.”
What does Hannah want? I know, of course. Do you? What does Boop want? Right now it’s something for Hannah. Boop’s own story will come into view soon.
How do you handle this in your own books or WIP? It’s so easy to forget to give your character purpose every step of the way. I keep the image of the water glass in mind, and use that to double-check myself. This want is what fuels your character and compels your reader to turn the page. That’s enough of a reason for me to keep the quote stuck to my laptop!
Exciting news! I’m expecting the edits for LEFT TO CHANCE this week from my St. Martin’s Press editor, the incomparable Brenda Copeland! I’m so excited to get back to Teddi Lerner and her friends, but I’ll be sad to set Hannah and Boop aside for a bit while I put the almost-final polish on this novel.
Next weekend I’m presenting at the Chicago Writing Workshop! Let me know if any of you are there. Even if you’re not in my sessions, wave or come say hi. I’m teaching two workshops and doing sixteen in-person critiques, so the day is packed (I did notice two bathroom breaks and lunch on my schedule, whew!) I can’t wait!
Oh, and just a reminder, as with all writing advice, YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. These posts are not mandates, they are opinions. I’m sharing what works for me and if it doesn’t work for you, THAT’S OKAY. There’s no right way or wrong way, just what’s right or wrong for me or you. As with everything writing-related here and elsewhere, take what you need and leave the rest.