Ever since early August, when the literary agent told me my proposed memoir had no hook for readers in Ohio, I’ve been devising a plan to appeal to her and others in her trade when I have another opportunity to pitch to them next summer. First, I applied and was accepted into the University of Washington’s year-long writer’s program with a focus on popular fiction. The goal is to complete a first draft of a novel by the end of the next school year.
My only assignment between now and the first day of class is to dream up a character, to understand what makes her happy, despondent, angry, and proud. (Note: read my Facebook wall for ideas). What are her quirks, what makes people like her, and what does she do that makes them roll their eyes? (Note: start observing my friends more closely.)
My first idea was to take a historical character, a relative of my grandma’s, whose name and occupation were unearthed in a brief family history. Unfortunately, to know this man would have required me to do months of historical research. This sounded burdensome, given that I also have to learn how to write a scene, plot out chapters, and create minor characters and subplots. My second idea came with its own set of challenges, that is, trying to imagine what a Chinese immigrant new to town was experiencing. I decided that I also wasn’t ready to take on this challenge. Finally, I settled on a character who was working in a field I knew well: school public relations.
I took my cue for character development from one blog reader in Ohio, who had referred me to an “Atlantic” article called, Don’t Write What You Know. I decided my protagonist would not be me. To start with, she would be much younger, maybe in her thirties. Over coffee yesterday, I confided in my friend Jackie that I had heard a stinging criticism of one writer’s manuscript because she didn’t know how to talk like a thirty-year-old. Jackie assured me that she could help me here, because she knew a few women in their thirties.
“There are two important facts you need to start with,” she said. “Some of them use the f-word a lot and they don’t wear panty hose.” Feeling buoyed by her obvious expertise, she added, “I think your character should be a bimbo [as in empty-headed].”
I told her that I was imagining an opening scene in which my protagonist was facing a television reporter for the first time. The question the reporter asks is a variation on one I had been asked in my career. “How did you feel when you learned that you had a possible pedophile volunteering in one of your schools?”
“I’ve got it. I know how she answers,” said Jackie. “I love pedophiles. I get a pedophile and a manicure every week.” Luckily, by then the Starbucks crowd we were sitting with had mostly cleared out for the morning and we didn’t disturb many with our giggles.
I feel confident I can share this imagined episode publicly, because I have a strong suspicion it’s not going to appear in my novel. My task is clear: get to know my bare-legged, swearing bimbo before October. But I still don’t have a name for this character. I started with Bitsy, but decided that was too East Coast. Any suggestions?