Category Archives: Writing classes

Portrait of a Villain

Heidi here, reporting progress for once.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.

After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.

Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.

I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.

As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.

From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.

Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.

This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.

And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.

Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)

The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.

So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.

P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.


How To Do Thumbsucking Properly

I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.

I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”

But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.

The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.

To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?

There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.

That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”

I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:
























Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.

Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process. 

But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:

I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.

Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.

Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

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