Thursday, March 31, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Nine

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, and Eight

For better or worse, this is the last part of this series. We've seen a story go from a prompt to a full-fledged rough draft. You might say, "I've seen no such rough draft!" Relax. Keep reading. And as you take in this masterpiece (read: train wreck), you might realize that there is a mountain of problems with characters, pacing, etc. More than likely, the portal they have wandered through is a giant, gaping plot hole.

But this is what I keep trying to tell everyone. No rough draft is perfect and publishable. Some rough drafts are so rough that 90% of it has to be scrapped to make it even readable. Coming up with a plot that barely works is hard enough. Turning that into a plot that actually works is a whole other kettle of onions.

There is one thing that I'm particularly proud of, and I'm going to point it out now, in case it's not clear when you read it. When Jake talks about his crimes (all the murdering), he says "I," as in "I killed all those people." But when he talks about his first kill, which happened in wartime and was not technically murder, he says "you" like the hypothetical general "you." While he seems to feel little to no remorse over the other crimes, he subconsciously distances himself from that first one. I think a lot of my super clever moments are subtle and easily missed, so I wanted to make sure that this was noticed.

At the moment I'm leaving the story on a cliffhanger. Not because I'm evil (well, maybe that) but because any ending I can come up with just feels like a letdown after this. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

I know there are some things that need to be fixed or added. The time period and backstory exist in my head, but didn't make it to the page very well. I'm sure I've mentioned how terrible I am at exposition before. It's something I'm working on. Anyway, it's a rough first draft. At some point in the future I will go back and fix it. I have to let it stew for a while, and wait for me to forget how it goes, so I can look at it with fresh eyes.

But enough talk. Here it is. I've even given it a name finally: My Soul to Take.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Worlds Without End

I know I've been a little behind with the blog lately. I have no excuse. Not a good one anyway. I could blame it on the time of year or my oh-so-busy schedule, but that's all bull. Mostly, I just haven’t been feeling inspired lately. And that's a problem.

I have every intention of finishing my current story. Whether I have the willpower to do it in the next couple days is another matter. I want to, so maybe I'll just have to force myself to work on it.

Then there is the issue of Camp NaNo, which begins on Friday. Last week I talked about a potential plot. The issue that I have with that particular idea: World Building. It's not something I'm good at. At all. So of course I'm going to talk about it like I have some kind of authority.

World building is, to me, a huge task. You can't just say, "This story takes place in Seattle in 2002." You have to be like, "In this world, the economy is like this because of a conflict that took place 400 years ago. This is how their government is set up. They have three suns and the pomdeter is the staple foodstuff of the common people. It's basically a potato." Because there's always potatoes.

Now, you might say that you still need all of that even when you're using an established world. And you do. All worlds have a backstory. But you don't have to make it up, and you probably don't have to explain it. You say "Seattle" and people know what you mean.

Even if you go to all the trouble of inventing a world and its geography and economy and society, you still have to somehow explain all this. And that is hard as hell. You're basically stuck doing a giant wall of exposition explaining the world before you can even get started on the story itself. And that's lame. You want to draw your readers in, not put them to sleep. I'm more a fan of revealing details bit by bit during the actual plot. If you have the sort of story where some ordinary person is transported to a magical fantasy kingdom, then they act as an audience surrogate, and other characters have to explain this new world to them. I've used this a few times myself. But that's not always an option, like in cases of straight up fantasy where all the action happens in another world.

Basically, when it comes to fantasy worlds, there are three versions of the "secondary world" (the "primary" being ours).

  1. Primary world doesn’t exist (Discworld)
  2. Secondary world entered through a portal (Alice in Wonderland)
  3. World-within a world (Harry Potter)

In types 2 and 3, you can have an audience surrogate newcomer. In type 1, not so much. And that is where the trouble lies for me.

I'm notoriously bad at describing things. Even if I do have a world built and I can picture the whole thing, it never comes out on the paper. So I'm a little hesitant to jump into a fantasy world with so little preparation. Or maybe this is just the challenge I need. We'll see. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Eight

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven

There is a certain point in most of my time-constrained stories, and we have just reached it. It's the point where I realize that I took a wrong turn somewhere, and I have to backtrack to a point in the story where it still made sense, and take a new path from there. It’s like a choose your own adventure story, except instead of ending in your horrible demise, the bad endings just drive the plot into the ground and leave it there to writhe in pain. We slowly back away from those versions, and try to find a better path.

The dialogue is the real issue right now. People can't seem to decide what they know and what they don't. I think the problem is that instead of having action with some supporting dialogue, the characters basically sat down and chatted. It's not working. Not at all.

Last week I shared an excerpt, and I think somewhere around the end of that is where things started to go wrong. There is a piece of dialogue that I liked, but I don't think I worked it in very well. Normally I don't edit until after I'm done, but sometimes you have to make a preventative amputation. Otherwise, this terrible plot direction is going to fester and kill the whole story.

So this is a bit of a setback, but it’s all a part of the process.

After reviewing the story, it looks like I'm only backing up about half a page. While this seems like a good thing, it also means I haven't really accomplished much lately. But I'm determined to finish this thing in the next week, so I really need to sit down and get it done.

So here is the plan. I have a few plot points that I need to hit, so I need to work out an outline. Once I have a skeleton, I can put some meat on those bones and fill in the blanks.

I know everyone is probably tired of hearing about this story. I'm right there with you. But, I said I would write it, so I'm going to write it. It will all be over, for better or worse, by next week. Then we can finally move on to something else.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Next Big Thing

It's a common occurrence that I will start plotting my next literary endeavor before I finish the one I'm working on. This project is no different. Rest assured, I'll be finishing the (still unnamed) prison train story. But the April round of Camp NaNo starts in a week and a half, and I am compelled to come up with a new story for it.

The plan is this: finish the current story before April, so I can jump into this new whatever. Of the three classes I'm taking, one will be finished by tomorrow, and next week is Spring Break, so I'll have plenty of time to finish up the tale. After all, I wrote "A History of Falling Off the Wall" in three days. This should be no problem, if I just sit down and do it.

So, what's the plan for Camp NaNo? As usual, I have a ridiculous number of plot ideas lying around. However, yesterday (I think) my husband randomly declared, "What if the earth was flat, and new worlds are discovered off the edge?" We discussed it a bit, and created this whole thing. Basically, some cataclysmic event shattered the world, and explorers have gone about reconnecting the pieces. There are air/space ships and cable car train things. The advantage of this idea is that it creates an entire world, so I could write the stories of several different characters, until I get to 10,000 words (the minimum word count for Camp NaNo).

Of course, there's a good chance I'll be struck with inspiration for something completely different between now and April 1st. These things happen. Whatever idea I go with, I will of course be taking you along for the ride.

Have any questions or comments about the upcoming Camp NaNo or the plans thereof? Leave a comment!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Seven

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six

I apologize for the lateness of this post. It’s been a busy week.

Anyway, getting down to business, I think we're going to talk about secrets today. Personally, I think there's a right way and a wrong way for characters to be keeping things from each other. What I would consider the wrong way is the willful failure to communicate. This is where the whole conflict of the piece arises when someone neglects to tell someone else a key piece of information. And by sharing that information, the whole thing could have been avoided. "But then there wouldn't be a story!" you might exclaim. That is true. But it would force the writer to come up with something better to drive the plot.

This will come back around to the story at hand, I promise.

The willful failure to communicate is not a new phenomenon. It's the basis for the story of Oedipus. See, when he was born, his parents were told that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Well, they wanted none of that, so they sent him away to be killed. Long story short, he ended up being adopted instead. One day, after he had grown up, he learned the same prophecy. So he ran away from the city of his adoptive parents, and wound up killing his biological father and marrying his biological mother. Now, if he had mentioned the prophecy to his adopted parents before running off, they could have said, "Chill, we're not your real parents," the whole thing could have been avoided, and Freud would have nothing to talk about.

The point is, I don't think this is an effective use of secrets in fiction. If someone's going to be keeping secrets, you don't want the audience to be yelling, "Just tell them already!" the entire time. You want them to be concerned about what might happen if the secret comes out.

How does this relate to our story in progress? Well, Jake's keeping secrets from his newfound companion. Namely, that he's a notorious killer. Here, I'll just show you. This picks up immediately after our last excerpt.

An overwhelming sense of dread came over him. He bolted for the front door. Outside, he wondered what he, of all people, would be so afraid of. But he didn’t stop running. He reached the train, vaulted over the coupling between two cars, and dove behind a car on the other side.

“What the hell am I doing?” he asked. There was no reason to think that he’d be any safer here.

Something crunched in the gravel under the train car. Taking a deep breath, he reached around the wheels and dragged it out. Whatever it was punched him in the nose, forcing him to drop it.

“Who are you? What do you want?” it asked.

Jake blinked a few times. It was a girl, somewhere between fifteen and twenty. She scurried away from him and tried to climb back under the car.

He grabbed her ankle and dragged her back out. “Relax, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Sorry I can’t say the same,” she said, kicking him.

“Who are you?” he asked. “What the hell is this place?”

“I was hoping you knew,” she replied.

This conversation was getting nowhere. He sighed and extended a hand. “Jake.”

She stared at his hand for a minute and apprehensively took it. “Evie.”

“All right, now we’re getting somewhere. How long have you been here?”

“Not long. I heard someone coming, so I hid. You?”

He looked around the train car and back at the mansion. “Maybe an hour. Maybe two.” He looked back at her. She was staring. “What?” he asked.

“You look familiar. We haven’t met before, have we?”

“Not likely. Maybe you’ve seen one of my posters.”

“Are you famous or something?”

He looked down. “In a manner of speaking.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Never mind. Forget it,” he said.

The question all this raises is, if he didn’t want her to know who he was, why mention the posters? Up until now, he didn't have a soul. Why would he care if she knew? For starters, she would be decidedly less cooperative if she knew who he was. As for the posters, I think he assumed that things were already going downhill when she almost recognized him. But then his half-admission of notoriety didn’t spark anything, and so he backtracked.

Why do I sound so unsure when I'm the one writing it? I have very little control over these people. For the most part, they do what they want and I just follow them around and write it down.

The point of all this is that Jake has a secret that he foolishly almost let slip. He doesn't know it yet, but saving this girl is going to be his salvation. How is she going to feel about that if she finds out who he really is? Stay tuned, I guess.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Rose by a Name Can't be Judged by its Cover

Today, we're going to talk about titles. Titles are super important to me, and I won't rest until I find the perfect one. For some stories, I have a title in mind before I even start. Sometimes I think of it in the middle. And some, the story is over and done by the time I give it a proper name.

The thing about titles is that they have to fulfill so many requirements. They must:

  • Be cool
  • Make some sort of sense with the story
  • Hopefully take on some other meaning while/after the story is read

I have lists and lists of possible titles. Most of them come from the NaNoWriMo forum, in the "Adoptables" sections. People post things like titles, plot twists, names, pieces of dialogue, etc., and other people can then use them in their own stories. I adopt a lot of things.

Starting with a title is an interesting prospect. Most titles can be interpreted several ways, and you have to figure out what kind of story you want to pull out of it. Let's dig into my stash of titles and speculate about some potential tales.

  • Skyscrapers and Stargazers. Strangely enough (for me) I think this is a love story. Two people set up telescopes on balconies or roofs or whatever, and while looking at the distant stars, they manage to find something a lot closer.
  • Liminality. Limen is a Latin word meaning "threshold." Something that is liminal is sort of between one thing and another. Apparently in anthropology, the term "liminality" means a transitional period. So this could be a coming-of-age story. This could be someone taking the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a new city. This could be anyone on the verge of becoming someone or something else.
  • Quantum Meddling. This is definitely a sci-fi story. What we're meddling with at the quantum level, I can't be sure. Maybe we'll rewrite a bit of reality (just a teeny bit), and have to deal with the repercussions.
  • Tilting at Windmills. This is a reference to Don Quixote, and the title character's attempt to fight windmills, which he believed were giants. Basically it means to be fighting imaginary enemies. This could go several ways. It could be a fantasy/supernatural story wherein a characters fights things only they can see, while everyone else thinks they're crazy. It could also be a more realistic story where someone's problems are in their own mind, or of their own making.

Titling an existing tale can be arguably more difficult. Now you have to find that perfect combination of words that will describe your plot and characters. Unless I'm lucky enough to have something just come to me, I'll usually figure out a word or a concept that I want to focus on, and try to figure out what other words should go around it. Sometimes I'll use a line from a song that seems to fit, or some place or element from within the story. Sometimes I'll just find a phrase that has the right words in it.

At this particular moment, the story that I'm working on still doesn't have a title. Both the Word document it's in, and the OneNote page about it are entitled "Night Train to Nowhere" because that was what I scribbled at the top of some notes I was making about it. But the story takes place (so far) in mid-afternoon, so that name doesn't make any sense. It's just a place holder while I think of something better.

If anyone (anyone) has any wild suggestions for a title, feel free to comment. Or comment anyway. This is a conversation, not a monologue.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Six

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five

Actual writing of the story has finally commenced. It's time to throw this thing into gear. Some things have happened. No one has died yet. Well, actually, several people have died. But they were off-screen, or off-page, as it were. We assume they're dead. They've disappeared without a trace. Nothing good could have become of them.

Jake has done some exploring, and even made a friend. Well, friend might not be the right word, but an acquaintance at least. Her name is Evie, and she has a story of her own, that we (and Jake) are going to have to figure out. Who is she? What is she doing here? Why hasn't she disappeared like all the others.

I had a question posed to me on last week's article about Jake's goals and whether regaining his soul was one of them. And I don't think it is. At this point, he's just a guy who has murdered seven (or eight, depending on who you ask) people. He doesn't realize that his soul is gone, and as such is in no hurry to get it back. His first objective, I would say, is survival. He wants to get out of this place alive. Along the way, maybe he wants to help Evie. Maybe he wants to figure out what is happening in this place. Regaining his soul is merely a byproduct.

So then the question becomes: why would he want to help Evie, since he's a bad guy and all? The answer is that he isn't completely devoid of a soul. One itty bitty fragment remains. And that might be enough to get him to do the right thing. In my mind, he still has standards regarding acceptable murdering targets. He might kill a full grown man who looks at him funny, but he wouldn't kill a child. That tiny fragment prevents him from doing so. Evie is a young, defenseless woman, and so does not fall under the banner of acceptable targets. If this all seems a bit convenient, maybe it is. But that's how the story goes. I'm sure it will sound better when it's all written out.

But now, the moment you've probably all been waiting for since I started work on this story: an actual piece of story. This is an excerpt taken from the middle of what I have. It introduces some information and (I hope) sets the tone for what is to come. This is, of course, a work in progress, so it's not going to be perfect.

The front door creaked as he pushed it open. He stepped into a massive foyer from which three hallways branched off to the right, left, and straight ahead. A grand staircase forked down on either side of the central corridor. Standing still in the room, he listened. Nothing.

A heavy thud behind him made him jump. The door had swung shut of its own volition, plunging him into shadow. High windows above the door illuminated the staircase, but the light did not reach to the floor.

He headed down the central hallway, passing statues and pieces of furniture, all draped with white cloths. At each door he came upon, he tried the handle, but found them all locked. Four doors, three tables, two chairs, four statues. Nothing particularly interesting. The hallway ended at a T-junction. Jake took the left path. It circled around, past more locked doors, and ended back in the foyer. It was safe to say that the hallway on the right would do the same.

Upstairs it was, then. At the first door on the left, he went to try the knob. The door drifted open at the contact. Inside was some kind of library, with bookshelves lining the walls. A desk sat in center of the room, with various objects strewn across it. The thing that caught Jake’s eye was thick book with papers and things jutting out of it. He thumbed through the pages. It was some kind of scrapbook, but there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the entries. One page held a family photograph, another held a yellowed newspaper clipping. The collection was all different people from different places and different years. Jake turned the page to a photograph of a woman and a familiar looking man. It took him a minute before he recognized the ruddy-faced guard from the train. A page later was a wanted poster. His own wanted poster. It wasn’t attached to the page like the others, instead it was just shoved in hastily. Angrily.

Jake smoothed out the corners of the page. “$500 Reward,” it said in big, enticing letters. Below that, once it had everyone’s attention, “Jacob Barlow, wanted for seven counts of murder.” The accompanying photograph was not the most flattering.

He slammed the book shut. Somewhere behind him, something moved.

He froze and warily looked back toward the door. Nothing. Leaning out into the hall, he thought he heard it again. From somewhere downstairs.

As quietly as possibly, he crept down the staircase. There was no sign of anyone. He walked halfway down the central corridor. Four doors, three tables, two chairs, three statues.

He stopped.

Three statues.

That's all you're getting for now. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. All of you. I know you're out there, don't be shy.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Whys and Wherefores

You get a bonus post this week, because I want to get back to the story in progress for Friday, but I don't want to sit on this until next week. I received two questions, and I thought they were unrelated enough to each get their own post. This question was about two pages long so I've just picked out the pertinent parts.

"Do you set a guideline of musts or cannot's will not's do you ever think about the objective of these characters and where you want them to end up. … How do you pick the objective when you come up with a character or do you?"

I think characters always need to have some motivation or objective that drives their story arc. I also think that maybe I don't always know what it is when I first start out. Starting with last November's NaNo novel, I've really tried to outline my story more, so I'm not so much making it up as I go. As it turns out, outlining didn't really help all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it did force me to examine the goals of my main character a little more.

The main character of that story, Daniel Sheridan, had just been framed for an assassination, and his end objective was to clear his name. Simple enough. Along the way, he wanted to stay on the right side of the law as much as possible, so he couldn't, say, kill anyone, or steal anything. So he had to try to survive, on the run, while still remaining an upstanding citizen. Since he wanted to prove that he was innocent and not a criminal, he couldn't become a criminal in the process.

In general, I think most of my characters have at least some end goal. Usually there are subgoals along the way, because something has to drive the plot. Otherwise, random things happen, and characters just react to them without ever really trying to accomplish anything.

I guess I'm just going to give some examples of character objectives from my past scribblings:

  • Unknown Soldier - a man wants to live up to the example set by his mythical hero
  • To Hell and Back – a guy wants to rescue his friend from the Underworld
  • Secrets of Sterling City - a kid wants to unravel the mystery surrounding the local mine
  • Locking Up the Sun - a man with a superpower wants to be left alone, but in order for that to happen, he must first save the city
  • The Edgelands - a man wants to find a way home from the alternate dimension he's fallen into
  • The Midnight Carnival - a girl wants to escape the demonic circus she's trapped in
  • Secrets and Thieves - an ensemble cast with a variety of goals:
    • An orphan spoon thief wants to find his own past
    • A teenage heiress wants to escape an arranged marriage
    • A narcoleptic gunslinger wants to do some good with what he believes will be a short life
    • A neo-Bedouin wants revenge for his murdered family
    • And several others
  • A Conspiracy of Ravens - the aforementioned frame-job wants to clear his name

And that's saying nothing of the antagonists of these stories. Even bad guys need motivations. They can't be doing it just for the evulz. That's just an unsatisfying way to go. The above listed stories aren't even all of the ones I have. There are several more where the objectives are not so clear, and it's more like "crazy things are happening, let's all try not to die." I mean, that's most of my plots anyway, but I try to have a little more than that.

I am by no means an expert of any kind. I'm just throwing words together and hoping something cool happens. But I am trying to be better. By having to justify things here, it's going to force me to try a little harder, and put a little more effort into things like plot, setting, and characterization. Hopefully I'll be able to produce something that people like and want to read.

As always, leave me comments, ask me questions. I will probably answer any open-ended questions in future posts, so if you want me to ramble on about something, ask away. We'll be returning to our prison train adventure on Friday.

Everything for Everything in a Place

Once again, I'm going to be answering a question, and butchering a well known phrase in the process. This week's question is: 
"How do you set the tone for the places that appear in your story do billboards pop up saying enchanted forest or scary circus in Chicago rainy streets of Seattle or do you name them after you see the story. What comes first the city or just a random location and you build from there?" 
Well, over the years I've had a variety of peculiar locations. There was a city built up on the side of a mountain, a town that fell through a rift in the universe, and an underworld that included parts of basically every mythology I could find. On top of those, I've had ordinary cities where less than ordinary things happen.  
What all of these places have in common is that I made them up to suit the needs of the story. As a general rule, I don't use real places because sometimes I need to have a prison on a cliff by a lake, and Seattle or Chicago just aren't delivering.  
An interesting aversion to this is that characters are nearly always from real places. There is a long-running joke that one character will always be from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, going back to a script based on a short story, based on a Breaking Benjamin song. I haven't used that in a little while, but there's always the potential to bring it back.  
The point is, if my plot needs a creepy town in which to take place, I'll create a creepy town. If I need a city large enough to have an arena and host a gubernatorial rally, I'll create that too. A lot of them are based on or inspired by actual places. This is helpful for things like basic layout, population, and climate. I'll just picture it in my head, rearrange some things, and give it a new name.  
I'm now going to tell you the story of a particular town, in a particular story, because it's kind of a weird tale. Above, I mentioned a town that fell through a rift in the universe. This town was called McClellan, and it really existed. Apparently. At some point. It appears in my 1922 atlas, and nowhere else. Situated somewhere between Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls, Idaho, it seems to have dropped not only off the map, but also off the world. So who is to say that it didn't fall through a rift to another dimension?  
I actually turn to that atlas a lot to find town names that are no longer used, because half the time I'm terrible at naming places. I get so caught up in finding the perfect name that it just goes unnamed for half the story. I'll put in a little placeholder like [city] that I can replace later on.  
I feel like I'm really getting off track here. I guess the point of all of this is that I usually created a town, or a city, or whatever, to suit my needs. Although, the "creepy circus" mentioned in the question was the setting for my attempt at a Young Adult novel, The Midnight Carnival, and I definitely had that setting in mind before I figured out what the hell that story was about. It's about a circus, as it turns out, not a carnival, but the name sounded better that way.  
Does that answer the question? At all?  
As always, feel free to ask questions about any part of this madness I call a writing process. Yes, all of you. You can post anonymously or just with a name if you don't want to log in anywhere. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Five

Parts One, Two, Three, and Four

I had a very enlightening conversation at work last week. My very helpful coworker (you know who you are) and I started hashing out where the story might be headed. Probably the most critical discovery was that Jake Barlow, our hero (such as he is), is not alone in this world. Somehow, some other person has managed to evade the Evil that resides in this world. And they are still in possession of a nice tasty soul. And ol' Jake just might get an opportunity to regain his own soul.

Also, somewhere between Monday and Tuesday, I had the realization that Jake had been a soldier in WWI. With that thought came several others, namely, that this was the circumstance of his first kill. So, not murder in the strictest sense, but the violent killing of a dude right in front of you is bound  to mess you up a bit. So, after months of shooting from the trenches in the vague direction of the enemy, he finds himself in very close proximity to a guy bent on killing him, and Jake has no choice but to stab him in the throat. These things happen. While technically being self-defense in the midst of a war, it still changes a man, puts a crack in his soul.

Other men could have walked away from this and come home with their sense of morality intact. Not so for Jake Barlow. He only went downhill. He made it home, tried to reintegrate into civilian life. But he never quite fit. And then the murdering began.

Now, all this information is probably only going to be vaguely alluded to come story time. It's not the kind of thing I spell out for the reader but I know it in the back of my mind. It informs who the character has become when we first meet him on that train. He has a past, even if we don't see it.

Honestly, I think I probably have enough to start writing. There are still some unanswered questions, but we can fill in the answers along the way. I'm not sure at this point if the next post in the series will be next Tuesday or Friday. It depends on whether I have something else for Tuesday. I'm considering continuing this series on Fridays, with one-off posts on Tuesdays.

As always, comment, subscribe, do what you will.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Chicken or Fish

I was asked a question last week, and so I'm going to take this post to answer it.

"My question is this do you come up with story first or the character or a combination or what? What inspires the story more the character or the story?"

This is what I like to call a "chicken or fish" question.1 Do the characters create the plot, or does the plot define the characters?

The short answer to this is that it depends.

The story I'm working on right now started with a vague idea for a plot, since I had a prompt to go off of. I then had to figure out what kind of character would inhabit this story. Now they're sort of evolving side by side. I realize something new about the character (stay tuned for Friday) and that leads to some new element of plot.

I think I usually start with a plot and then work in the characters. I have lists and lists of plot ideas, dialogue   fragments, you name it. Typically I'll take one of those and then figure out the whos and whys. 2015's NaNo novel, A Conspiracy of Ravens, started with the idea that some guy would be framed for an assassination and find himself caught up in some conspiracy. From there I had to figure out who this guy was and how he got mixed up in this. And then there was the blogger, who was supposed to be a bit part who would be posting stuff in the background, maybe aiding our hero. Then he just invited himself in, making himself at home until he got promoted to deuteragonist (secondary main character). This changed the course of the story entirely.

But sometimes, I start with some characters. The most notable character-first story is my NaNo from 2014, Secrets and Thieves. I had the general idea of "post-apocalyptic adventure," but there was no set plot until I brought in all these characters and figured out what they were bringing to the table. Two characters, a renowned spoon thief and a polio-stricken inventor, both originated in other stories before I transplanted them into this one. They were joined by a teenager running from an arranged marriage, a narcoleptic gunslinger, a small-town physician, and a man seeking revenge for his murdered family. I took all of these people, threw them together, and let them work out where their story would lead.

Either way, once I have a vague plot and some characters, they will play off of each other as the story builds.  Sometimes, I think I have a story figured out, but then a character comes in and informs me that the plot is going to go in a totally different direction. There have been times that I'll be writing along, and I'll be like, "Holy shit!" as something completely unexpected happens. You'd think I'd know what was going to happen, but half the time I'm as surprised as everyone else. And the plot can also change the characters. Sometimes, because something has to happen, it makes me realize something new about the characters. The whole process is very fluid.

I hope that answered the question without going off the rails too much.

1. "Don't you mean 'chicken or egg'?" Yes. But also no. It's a long story.