Finding Inspiration for your Characters

41hjTdanuNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.

This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)

In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.

That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.

But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.

To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them. 

It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.

Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!

One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.

Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.

And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.

But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.

So if you’re struggling with character motivations,  you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.

Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.

Inspiration. Go get some!

 

Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/

 

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Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.

 

My Morning, or How to Rescue Baby Birds by Really, Really Trying

Some people are morning people. Me, not so much. Mostly because mornings have a habit of bringing you Really Weird Things.

Since I live on a farm, very much in the country, I never quite know what to expect. In the past, mornings have brought me stray greyhounds, a porcupine in the barn (one really memorable morning, I found said greyhound sporting more than 300 porcupine quills.), injured horses, and one morning, a baby possum on the porch (which my black Lab had brought for me. He was quite pleased with his gift. He’s also brought me live armadillos. Those, I made him put back.).

Today’s escapade was like that.

baby birdsFor the past few weeks, a pair of blue jays have been jealously defending their nest against all comers. The nest is very high – about 60 feet up the tallest tree in the yard – but boy, do they think the cats are out to get them! I haven’t the heart to try to explain to them that my cats are lazy, and they suck at climbing trees. But I’ve been dreading the day when the babies try to leave the nest. Because the cats will be interested in them then.

This morning, when I went out for my walk, I was greeted by two tiny balls of blue-gray fluff with beady black eyes and wide-open mouths. Somehow, in the night, two babies, not quite fledglings, had fallen out of the nest. They were sitting in the grass in the middle of the yard, waiting for me, apparently.

They stared at me. I stared at them.

First, the fact that they survived the fall was a total miracle. Second, the fact that my two barn cats hadn’t found them yet was a miracle. Third, the fact that I’d chosen to go for a walk this morning, instead of letting the other seven barn cats out of their crates first, was a miracle. (YES, my barn cats sleep in large crates at night, with litter boxes, food, water, and blankets to sleep on. Sue me.)

I looked away. Looked back. Still there. Staring at me. Mouths open. Eyes beady. Waiting.

baby birds basketA normal person would say, okay. Nest in tree. Replace birds in nest. Easy. But remember, the nest is about 60′ in the air.  I cannot climb that high. If my life depended on it, I’d be dead. So . . . I had to go to plan B.

The most important thing was to get them off the ground. So I cam up with the bright idea of getting a basket, using hay to make a nest in it, and putting the babies in that.

They stared at me. I stared back.

Then, I got a dog leash and secured it to the basket handles. I had a 30-foot lunge line (used for exercising and training horses), and the idea was to toss one end over a branch, secure it to the basket, and then hoist the basket in the air.

Okay. If you’ve never tried to do this, don’t. Hollywood makes it look easy. Hollywood also makes it look easy to drive 200mph in a stolen Lamborghini, and knock someone out with one punch. Hollywood sucks.

I would need a ladder.

I HATE LADDERS. They are all sentient beings, with one goal and one goal only:  to kill as many humans as possible. But I leaned it against the tree and climbed as I high as I could make myself, which was enough to be able to toss the end of the line over the branch and feed it over, until I could reach the end from the ground. Then, I was able to clip the line to the dog leash, hoist the basket in the air, and secure the other end to one of my vintage lawn chairs.

I do not recommend this if you are tired, hot, out of shape, and also fending off 9 curious cats, one of whom REALLY wants to play with the lunge line (but could care less about what’s in the basket). Seriously, though, you can return baby birds to the nest; birds don’t have a good sense of smell. And apparently, even if only one or two babies fall out of the nest, if you fix a new one for them in the vicinity of the real nest, the mothers may take care of both nests. Who knew?

So that’s my morning. Sadly, that’s not even a really odd morning. Par for the course, really. Right up there with watching a skunk eat the dead bugs under the yard light.

I’m happy to report that this evening, the babies are fat, healthy, sleeping, and Mum and Dad Blue Jay are taking care of them. I’m hoping they are able to continue until they are ready to leave the makeshift nest.

 

Here are some good guidelines for dealing with baby birds that have fallen out of nests:

https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/baby_birds.html

https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2011/05/24/when-rescuing-a-baby-bird-is-not-the-compassionate-thing-to-do.aspx

http://thewildlife.wbur.org/2014/06/24/when-to-help-a-baby-bird-and-when-to-leave-it-alone/