Posts Tagged With: writing life

Somewhere In The Middle

Nope, somewhere in the middle is not a commentary on my political views, my social status, or even where I like to sit in a movie theater. Somewhere in the middle represents my philosophy on storytelling.

I was raised, and I’ll bet you were too, on the sorts of tales that began with “Once upon a time.” We always had a nice run up to the plot in those days, right? There’s this princess, beautiful of course, born in a castle in a fair land, and her parents loved her, and they were all happy—even the servants and serfs and vassals and…and the gosh-darn vermin were happy! But the queen apparently dropped dead of gangrene from an injury sustained in a loom malfunction, or from inbreeding, who knows? And the king got lonely and married some vindictive cow with a touch of the eldritch who doesn’t like kids, and NOW we’re going to find out what the actual story is all about.

(Note: If it’s a movie version, the story begins when the narrator finally shuts up. Unless the narrator is Morgan Freeman, in which case screw the story and let the man talk! I’d listen to Morgan Freeman narrating a shopping list.)

With all respect to the old traditions, it’s just not my thing. If I’m going to put my readers through an elaborate set-up, I make very sure I have a good reason for it. Otherwise, I’d rather start things off like this:

“That’s going to leave a mark.”

First line of my short story (novel-in-progress) Choreography.

The gun felt reassuring in my hand.

First line of the first chapter of my novella, The Bluff.

I tossed my duffle bag into the trunk, slammed it shut with more force than necessary, then turned.

First line of the short-short story, Volition.

His breath was stale. She would never forget that.

First line of my current novel-in-progress.

 

See what I did there? Four different stories, of varying lengths, with diverse points of view and completely different plots, but I drop kicked you straight into the middle, didn’t I? You don’t know these characters. You don’t know their names, their ages, their backgrounds, and with one exception you don’t even know their genders. These things don’t actually matter at this juncture. What you do know is that something is going on.

What’s going to leave a mark? Why does that person need the reassurance of a firearm? Someone tossing duffle bags and slamming trunks with more force than necessary is clearly a person with something on her (or his) mind…and wouldn’t you like to know what that something is? And hey, he of the stale breath is certainly making a memorable impression on her. Why?

If I’ve done my job right, I sprinkled a little itching powder across those introductory sentences. I’ve generated a question or two in your mind. And the only way you’ll be able to scratch that itch is to read the next sentence.

If I’d started with a vast meandering lead-up to the problem at hand, you still might read the story, but it’s also possible that you’ll wander off to play Angry Birds or check email or trim that pesky toenail that keeps snagging your sock or something. Instead, I’ve generated a sense of immediacy by dropping you in the middle instead of easing you through a beginning. Think of it as the difference between the beach and the ocean. You can stand on the beach forever and not even get wet, but if you get dropped smack into the water, I bet you’re going to start swimming.

At least, I would.

Oh, but in the interest of complete honesty, I have made one notable exception to the middle rule. I’ll talk about that another day.

Throwing out a question for the writers and readers out there: How do you like to start off a story?

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Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writers On Writing – Three Favorites

There are a lot of good books out there by writers, for writers. None of them, let’s be honest, will turn you (or me, or the crazy cat lady down the street…oh wait, that is me) into the next Big Name Author. When push comes to shove, it still comes down to you and the dreaded blank page.

But the thing about reading advice by authors is that they also know what it’s like to sit down to the dreaded blank page, and they have a track record of having wrestled it into submission.

This interests me.

In any case, I’m going to share three books (and a bonus book) that I’ve found myself going back to time and again. I would love it if you, in turn, would share your gems with me! Mind you, these are books that I consider inspirational as well as instructive. You won’t find Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style here…but hopefully you’ve got that one on your bookshelf already. Right?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

Two things right off the bat. Number one: I don’t read King’s fiction. In fact, I don’t like the horror genre. Never have, never will, prefer to sleep at night thank you very much. Number two: If you never read any other author-to-author advice book in your entire life, read this one. You can even skip the memoir-y parts if you want and skip to the section that explains the nuts and bolts of the craft. But READ that section. Several times. Use a highlighter pen if you have one. In fact, post-high school, this is the only book I have ever used a highlighter pen on, and I would do it again. King is chock-full of terrific, pragmatic and accessible advice. You need this guy.

How To Write With The Skill Of A Master And The Genius Of A Child – Marshall J. Cook

This is definitely a lesser known book, especially in comparison to the aforementioned one, but it’s a good one. Marsh Cook spent many a long year as a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he’s published everything from magazine articles to murder mysteries. (Not to mention, Your Novel Proposal From Creation to Contract : The Complete Guide to Writing Query Letters, Synopses, and Proposals for Agents and Editors co-written by Marshall Cook and Blythe Camenson. There are times when I cling to that book like a drowning man clings to a friendly passing dolphin.)

Anyway, Marsh (I can call him Marsh, he signed my copy that way) writes with a very clear style; teaching and encouraging but never condescending. With equal parts common sense and good-natured humor, he gives a writer new things to consider and several ways to think outside the box. If you’re really stuck, there are even a few optional writing assignments and exercises to play with

Granted, there are a lot of writing books out there that cover much the same territory as this one, but out of them all, this is the one that has a permanent place on my book shelf and gets put through its paces on a regular basis.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Ann Lamott

For sheer inspiration and earthy fun, not to mention a terrifically well-crafted read, I go back to Ann Lamott time and time again. She makes me thoughtful, she makes me laugh, she is unflinchingly honest about the trials and tribulations of the craft, but she knows (like I know) that writers write. It’s what we do, and even when we hate it, we love it. Her humor is earthy and down to earth. Not too many books have one chapter called “Broccoli,” and another called, “Shitty First Drafts,” but they are both well worth reading. The best thing about Bird By Bird? When I put it down, I am inspired not just by Lamott’s advice, but also by her writing style. She is a writer who truly charges my batteries and makes me want to throw aside my self-doubts and serial-procrastination habits and just get on with conquering that dreaded blank page. Heck, it’s probably not so dread-worthy after all.

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Possession is 9/10th’s Of My Protagonist

The Author At Work

Last night, as I was dawdling along and trying for the zillionth time to tie up or trim off a pesky dangling plot thread, one of my characters popped up and engaged my brain in a very interesting debate about heaven, hell, life, death, love, loyalty, need, want and morality. By the time I came up for air, my Paranormal-Lite story had arguably reached a point where the Lite might not apply anymore. And I suddenly had five pages of pretty amazing dialogue that–even if it doesn’t make it past the final edit–is going to change my perception of this character forever. Fortunately in a good way. It doesn’t always work out like that.

The thing is, this particular character has always been a fairly sharp individual – very pragmatic and common-sensical – but in the three or four years I’ve known her, she never once gave me an indication of this sort of uber-deep thinking capacity. And now she, like several other characters in my authorial stable, has proven that she’s a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

I’ve always had an inferiority complex, mind you, but it’s a little ridiculous when even the people I make up in my head, can run intellectual circles around me.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one this has ever happened to.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about characters who are more talented than I am. That’s easy. If I want talent, well, let my protagonist sit down to play relevant bits of Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, K. 365. And lo, there is talent. I don’t have to play it. (I never got past “Ponies At Play” when I took lessons with Mrs. Stolis when I was like, seven.) It’s sufficient that you know it was played and played well. Want a different kind of talent? Just slide a Super Bowl championship ring on Mr. Protagonist’s finger. Or wealth? Give Ms. Protag a Limo and driver named Raoul. No problemo! How about something a little less measurable like courage? Badabing, a few seconds at the keyboard and my protag just took one for the President and double-tapped the bad guy to boot.

I’m not necessarily talking about planned intellect either. I mean, when it comes to really smart characters, the writer can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk all over the page. The evil mastermind has to be a mastermind in more than just job description. But you can plan for that. You can research other evil masterminds, and do up outlines or storyboards or 3×5 cards, and have Roget’s Thesaurus and My Big Book O’ Thermonuclear Dynamics on standby for on the fly research.

Nope, I’m talking about the ambush. I’m talking about the character who’s puttering along in a nicely crafted little story arc and suddenly stops, turns around slowly and says in a slightly menacing (or at least condescending) tone, “You think you know who I am. You don’t know Jack.” Or Jill. Whoever. And they jump the tracks, kick over the house of cards, and take you on the mental metaphor of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with stuff that you could not in a million years have come up with on your own.

Except that you did.

Somehow.

It’s like getting kicked in the head and becoming a temporary savant. Or like crashing a Mensa cocktail party. Again, it’s all in a good way, but it’s a little bizarre when your brain gets hijacked and your only apparent value is being able to take dictation. It’s slightly … creepifying.

I’m going to throw this out there for all the writers who meander in, and I’d really love to hear about your experiences. Heaven forbid I find out I’m on my own, because I really can’t afford a Pshrink on my salary.

Has this ever happened to you? Do your characters ever give you more than you ever asked for? Are they brighter than you? Do they let you know it? Do they make you wonder where the heck they came from?

Do we need to start a support group?

Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Good Character: Perfection – AKA: The Big Yawn

Anyone who’s played around in the world of fan-fiction knows who Mary Sue is. Mary Sue is perfect. She’s beautiful…most likely with at least one physical feature that either lends itself to poetic cliché (hair that shimmers like a raven’s wing) or is honestly a physiological impossibility for Homo-sapiens.  (Violet or gold eyes anyone? How about one of each?) She probably comes from some sort of dreadful background–maybe an orphan, much abused, raised in poverty–yet overcomes it all without breaking a nail or suffering from PTSD, and saves the world without breaking a sweat. Men want her. Women want to be her. Children and small animals adore her. Unicorns flock to her and roll over at her feet for tummy rubs even if they’re breaking into the pages from an entirely different genre. She’ll probably have a flowing name of many-vowels like Aulienniayaia. She will not be named Gert.

When I was immersed in Pern Fic, I knew of one Mary Sue who had rose petals strewn in her path. Actual rose petals. By peasants. With much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And why? Because she was moving across town. (And she rode a dragon that wasn’t so much a gold color as… apricot. I don’t personally believe that anyone who rides an apricot dragon is rose-petal strewing material, but I digress.)

Yuck.

But the point is the perfection. The noble, handsome guy who wears artfully torn shirts out of habit just so his chiseled physique has a chance to gleam, and who will face down his foes unflinching. The ethereally beautiful woman who can balance the entire universe with a single word uttered from glistening ruby red lips. You know who I mean. You can probably name a few. You might even have written a few. I know I have.

These are not the sort of people I would willingly hang out with. I have enough of an inferiority complex already, thank you very much. I can’t relate to them. And I would submit to you, gentle authors, that if your readers cannot relate to your main characters, you’re missing out on something important. You’re missing out on the connection that makes your character real. Likable. Someone who isn’t just going to get cheers because she/he is the heroine/hero but because the audience has invested a feeling of…well, of empathy. Maybe even of friendship.

Many years ago, when I wrote the aforementioned Pern fanfiction, I was asked to come up with a Weyrleader (a head honcho for the uninitiated) and, like the newbie I was, I created B’yard. You can probably guess. B’yard (we’ll call him Bay) was stereotypical hero-material: tall, handsome, black hair, (yeah, yeah, raven‘s wing, shut up) built to centerfold specifications, ice-blue eyes, noble out the wazoo, great in a knife-fight and oh yeah, he could dance. And scars. He had an impressive array of scars. (I know, right? I’m so ashamed.)

It didn’t take me long to realize that as a main character, Bay was not going to be a success. You can’t write much about a guy who does everything right, who gets to be leader by being the best, and who leads his people with wisdom and fairness. He’s not a hero anymore. He’s a freakin’ hall monitor.

So I started to mess him up. By the time Bay’s character arc had ended, we learned that he had the political astuteness of an eight-week old Labrador puppy. He was so locked into “doing the right thing” that he was the most easily manipulated character I’ve ever written. His career ambitions totally wrecked his love life. He was clueless when dealing with anyone under the age of 7, including his own son. His habit of dramatically showing off his scars became something of a joke with the dragonriders-in-training. And his penmanship was frankly crap. He had to hire a secretary for all his correspondence. I could have written about him forever. I definitely learned a lot from him.

These days, when a new character starts tapping at the door of my subconscious and I invite him in for a chat over tea and crumpets, I immediately start looking to see what makes him tick. What are his good points? What are his flaws? What makes him stupid? What makes him smart? What makes him human? What redeeming qualities does he have? Does he have enough baggage to complete a journey? Are we going to have to pick some up on the way?

In my Young Adult historical novel I have two main characters who seem to have nothing in common. Marcus is young, highly-educated, something of an intellectual and a complete snob. He can recite poetry. Lupus is older, slow-spoken, intensely private and content to lead a simple life as a blacksmith. He might know a dirty limerick or two, I never asked him.  Problem: Marcus is a slave and Lupus is his new owner.

Honestly, once those two characters introduced themselves to me, it would have been pretty impossible not to write about them. Not because they’re perfect or stereotypical hero material, but because they aren’t. And that makes them interesting.  At least I sure hope it does!

So, for the writers out there, what are your experiences with character perfection or character flaws?  I’d love to hear your input!

Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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