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#/

 

Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work. 

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:  in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post ( https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:  Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all. 

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at that point in the book.”). In her book Write Naked, Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:  the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a let’s rewrite this entire manuscript thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it. A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was downright brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I  was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:  http://www.jenniferprobst.com/

 

Minor Characters: can they do more?

Sometimes, you can read a book or watch a movie several time, and never notice something important in it – until one day, you see it. And that changes the entire book or movie for you.

truman show

This past week, my Philosophy class watched The Truman Show. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an awesome movie! The basic plot goes like this:  Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carey) is a normal man living a normal life, with his slightly overbearing wife, slightly overwrought mother, and slightly less-than-ambitious best friend. But Truman has one ambition:  to leave his hometown and travel. And this, the directors cannot let him do.

See, Truman was adopted at birth, and is now the unwitting star of a television program that has been running, nonstop, for 29 years. His wife? An actress. His mother? An actress. His bet friend? Say it with me . . . an actor. (Hell, half the time he’s being fed his lines directly from the show’s producer!) As Truman slowly begins to realize that his life is a total fabrication, he’s forced to confront all his fears and – eventually – the unknown world.

My Philosophy students watch this to better understand certain philosophical questions and theories – Plato, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, even Camus comes up in discussion. Of course, as a writer, I look at it from a slightly different perspective. For Truman, everyone is an antagonist; everyone is out to keep him from his goal of finding his lost love and sailing away to Fiji.

Or are they?

See, this is where that whole ‘watch something a hundred times . . .’ thing comes in. There is one character – a very minor character – who, I finally realized, isn’t actually trying to hinder Truman at all. And that character is the bus driver.

bus driverYup. Bus driver.

In one scene, Truman attempts to escape Seahaven by taking the bus to Chicago – which, of course, cannot happen because a.) the entire show is filmed inside a huge dome, and b.) you can’t let the star escape. The poor bus driver is ordered to figure out a way to stop the bus from leaving, and intentionally strips the gears. As everyone else gets off the bus, he looks back at Truman – still sitting in the back, with his little plaid suitcase – and then walks back to him and says, “I’m sorry, son.”

You think, at first, that he’s merely repeating a line. What else would a bus driver say, after all?

But later in the movie, when it’s discovered that Truman has escaped in a sailboat and is trying to find a way out, the producers order the ferry to be launched. The bus driver (who has no name, apparently), is brought to drive the ferry and – voila. Strips the gears.

Coincidence? I’ve read essays about the show that claim this is about white superiority and ensuring that the only non-white character really shown is ignorant and incompetent – but you know what? I think that’s total BS.

I think the bus driver did it on purpose. 

And, I think he did it to help Truman. 

soapboxHere, give me my soap box. That’s better. 🙂

I think he is the only character, in the entire movie (except for Truman’s true love), who has any sense of decency, compassion, or morality. Everyone else has to be pushed to the absolute outer limits of murdering Truman before they call it quits! But not the Bus Driver. Here, I’ll capitalize his title. 🙂 It only took me what, a dozen times of seeing this movie to figure it out? But. I think this is a very subtle, almost Easter-egg-like, thing the movie’s writers slid into the script. Maybe the Bus Driver really can pilot the ferry. Who knows? The point is, he didn’t. I think he took his opportunity to give Truman a fighting chance to escape. Had the ferry started up, they would have caught Truman, and that would have been the end of it. But because the ferry couldn’t run, Truman had his chance to escape. And he does it in a way that is totally in keeping with his character and the show’s plot.

And suddenly, what looks like a random, rational event that helps Truman escape becomes a real plot point. From a minor character, no less!

So. The question becomes, how can your minor characters change the odds for your main character? For better or worse? Is there any place where a minor character can drop a hint to your MC, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time? Say something, randomly, that jogs a memory or makes a connection? Provide them with some bit of knowledge they need for their journey? JK Rowling does this a lot – small, seemingly insignificant things in the beginning of the book become Very Important later on, and almost all of them are from secondary – sometimes, even minor – characters.

So think about those throwaway characters. Can you give them a little heart and soul? Can you give them a real reason to be there?

Just some food for thought. 🙂

Can you relate to your antagonist?

This past week, I’ve been deep in the bowels of rewrites – and just printed the draft yesterday! I’ll be going through it this weekend, making changes and edits next week, and hoping to get it to my betas soon. 🙂

But let’s be honest – that’s not all I’ve been doing. 🙂

There were a couple of things this week that provoked some deep thoughts. (Besides Trump thinking it’s okay to murder an endangered species.) Both had to do with how we think about our antagonists, and how we can humanize them.

Writing books, conferences, tutorials – they’ll all tell you the same thing:  you can’t have an antagonist/villain who’s completely bad. Sometimes, that comes across (and I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking this) as your antagonist has to do something great like rescuing kittens, or donating 30% of his ill-gotten gains to charities and orphanages, so the reader, you know, has to sort of root for him.

But it’s not really like that. What all these tutors and books really mean is this:  you need to make your antagonist relate-able. And here’s a couple of examples of making your antagonist human, without necessarily making them heroic. 

The first came with my 134th watching of Ever After. If you’ve never seen this movie, do go watch it, please. It’s a historic retelling of the Cinderella story, and fairly historically accurate as well (to those who say that Leonardo da Vinci was never in France – well, he was!). Drew Barrymore plays the title heroine, Danielle du Barbarac, who will catch the eye – and heart – of Prince Henri. Now, in the original fairy tale, the wicked stepmother is just that. Wicked. She hates Cinderella for reasons we don’t really understand, dotes on her horrible daughters, and makes Cinderella’s life a living hell. She’s a villain.

9302f59bf71b5164267079b635e71deaBut. In Ever After, the stepmother, Rodmilla de Ghent (played masterfully by the incomparable Anjelica Huston), is a woman widowed and having to do whatever it takes to raise three daughters – well, two daughters and one stepdaughter  – alone. There is one revealing scene in the movie in which Danielle is brushing her stepmother’s hair, and Rodmilla allows her – for a brief moment – to ask about her father. “You look so much like your father,” she says . . . and when Danielle asks if she loved him, she replies, “I barely knew him.” Yet it’s clear that his death shook her to the core; she could have married again, and in fact it would have been much easier if she had. But she didn’t. Now, this could be because no man in his right mind would take on a total witch who’s already been through two husbands, sure. But it might also be that, having been married twice, she has chosen a different path. At any rate, though it’s a small – very small – scene, it gives the ‘wicked stepmother’ a hint of humanity. We can identify, in a way, with her. And when she finally gets her come-uppance, we almost feel a little sorry for her. (Almost.)

Then, last Sunday, I was listening to The Moth Radio Hour (which, if you’ve never listened, you HAVE to!). One story in particular had me spellbound. A young musician, living in LA and working as a super in an apartment complex, was called by the FBI and asked to identify a couple of photos. The woman, he said, didn’t look all that familiar. But the guy, sure. That was Charlie. He lived upstairs with his wife.

Only Charlie was really – Whitey Bulger. Yeah. THAT Whitey Bulger.

Here’s a link to the episode:  https://themoth.org/stories/call-me-charlie But as you listen, you’ll understand why this one made me think. The musician, Josh, didn’t know Charlie as the FBI’s Most Wanted. He didn’t know him as a ruthless mob boss who has since been convicted of money laundering, extortion, and nineteen murders. Josh knew Charlie as the guy who came downstairs one day, listened to him play his guitar, and then gave him a Stetson. He knew Charlie as the guy who gave him Christmas presents, and then – when he forgot to write a thank-you note – gave him a box of stationary. He knew Charlie as – Charlie. Not a murderer. And when the FBI wanted Josh to participate in taking Charlie down, that’s how Josh thought about it –  not that he was helping arrest a wanted criminal, but that he was helping arrest someone he considered a normal, quiet tenant who might even be thought of as a friend.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Could a notorious mob boss be – a nice guy? To someone who had no idea who he was, maybe. Take author Ann Rule. In the early 70s, she famously worked a late-night shift on a suicide hotline with none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends – and even after he was arrested and charged with the murders of thirty women, she remained friends with him because he was charming and – well, to those he liked, he was nice. In a jailhouse interview, he apparently once told her, “I liked you. I would never have hurt you.” (Here’s a story from the Washington Post about her relationship with Bundy:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/28/crime-writer-ann-rule-and-killer-ted-bundy-were-friends-before-they-were-famous/?utm_term=.b8ed8134155a )

So maybe this is all there is to it, then. Make your antagonist someone your reader is able to relate to. That makes it harder for your readers to know what they want to have happen. And it makes it harder for your protagonist, maybe, to do what they have to do. Ann Rule is the one who tipped off police about Bundy. Imagine the doubts and second doubts she had to go through before she placed that call. What if your antagonist is someone that, under other circumstances, your protagonist could actually like? How much inner tension could that add?

This is part of the revisions that I’ve been making. My antagonist was – well, to be honest, he was sort of what we call a ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Motivated by greed, he was callus and dismissive of Erin’s concerns, and clearly didn’t care about the ghosts he hunted. I also never liked him and never felt comfortable with having him in my story. It didn’t seem like that’s really who he should be.

So – I hit the rest button. What would add more tension? For Erin, going up against a jackass is just par for the course – that would never keep her up at night! But what if he wasn’t an ass? What if he was actually a halfway decent guy who just truly didn’t understand that the things he was doing were actually harming the ghosts he was after? A bit bumbling, a bit stubborn, and a bit clueless. We all know someone like that. That’s easy to relate to. We can’t hate this guy, because he’s not really a bad guy. We can be aghast at the things he does. But even Erin, as much as she wants to, can’t really dislike him. That puts her in a bind. That adds a little tension.

I encourage you to at least listen to the Moth segment. 🙂 But also, to think about these things if you’re in the middle of your own rewrites, or if something seems slightly off-kilter about your antagonist. Sure, we like to hate villains. No one minds hating Jafar, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Trump. They’re evil. We get it. But in fiction . . . sometimes, just evil doesn’t quite get the job done.

Sometimes, being able to relate to your antagonist is what you need.

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

Writers Who Write Things Down: Making To-Do Lists for Novels

Writing is a lonely, frustrating thing.

Wow. Big surprise there. I hear you. (I can also hear you rolling your eyes, thanks.) But it’s true. No one ‘gets’ what you’re doing, sitting at your laptop day after day. People see you sitting at the coffee shop and think you’re not doing anything, so they sit down to chat with you – and unless you want to be really rude, you feel like you kind of have to let them. Which kills whatever momentum you’d gotten going.

It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to stay on task. It’s hard to pound the keyboard, not knowing if what’s going to come out today is pure gold, a dribble of cold pudding, or something in between. Generally, it’s something in between. If you’re lucky.

So how can we stay motivated?

A few years ago, an agent requested the full of one of my novels. It had a ton of issues, and I was frantic, unsure how long I could put her off, or how long it would take to fix the problems. Because there were a lot of problems! It was my first query, my first submission, and I was petrified I’d screw it up.

So I printed a fresh copy of the manuscript, sat down with a pen and a fresh stack of Post-It Notes, and started. I was overwhelmed and had no starting place – so I had to create one. I wasn’t revising at that point. I was making a to-do list. 

It’s pretty simple. I’m a very visual person, and I tend to forget things if I don’t write them down because I’m also a little scatter-brained. So every single page of that manuscript was gone over. Notes on everything were made. Then I typed up all those notes into a master to-do list for completing the revisions. These notes ran the gamut from character development and motivation, to dialogue, to scenes that could be cut or needed to be moved. This process took about a weekend.

Then, it was time to get to work. As I completed one item on the list, I crossed it off. And in far less time than I thought – just about two weeks – I was done with all the changes I wanted to make.

6124050I think this is reflected in one of my favorite self-help books, Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser. The gist of this little book is that if we want to make things happen in our lives, the best way to do it is to announce our intentions – by writing them down. The act of writing our goals, dreams, and plans sends a signal to the subconscious that this is something to Pay Attention To. She has several examples in the book of people who did precisely this – whether it’s writing letters to as-yet unborn children to attract the kind of soul they want in their child, to writing and burning things we want to forget about, to Jim Carrey’s famous $10 million check he wrote to himself as an out-of-work entertainer.

Obviously, the act of writing them down doesn’t actually make them happen. I want to win the lottery, and I can write that as much as I want, but if I don’t actually go buy the ticket, it’s not going to happen. It’s the same thing with my to-do lists. I want to finish this novel or that one. What is it I need to do? 

The answer is a to-do list.

Lists keep me focused and grounded. I may not have all the answers right now, but that’s okay; my subconscious will be working on it. (Haven’t you ever had that moment where suddenly, all the problems you were having with a manuscript evaporate and the answer Reveals Itself Magically? It’s awwwe-some!)

For Nicky, my to-do list is all over the place – here’s a sample of what it includes:

  • p. 10 – move up about the post office from page 46.
  • p. 5 – do we need to explain that bodies weren’t shipped home during World War I?
  • p 27 – Simon teaches him to fight – need to put that scene here.
  • How much were property taxes in the 1920s? Need to know.
  • p. 35 – there’s no tension here! No questions being asked. What can we do about that?
  • Research court-martial procedures. Maybe change it so that Daniel isn’t a CO, but part of the mechanics’ corps?
  • What the bleep happened to the Model T’s top, and why don’t they fix it???? ?
  • p. 105 – um, why is the Sheriff at Sally’s? It’s a great scene, but what do we learn from it? How does it further the story? Make in integral, or ditch it.

It has also included things like:  finding maps of the area c. 1924, how fast a Cadillac V-8 can really go and could you build a turbo charger in the 1920s (the answer is yes, by the way), and many others. As something gets accomplished, it gets crossed off the list.

To-do lists are great for several reasons. The most obvious is that it gives you something concrete to work on. If you’re not feeling at all creative or energized today, work on those mechanical issues. Move that scene over there. Maybe write a new intro so it flows better. And you know what? It might just be that you start to get energized at that point. And then you can move on and maybe tackle something else, like dialogue that needs fixed or a question of motivation on page 81.

But another reason is that it keeps the novel in the forefront of your mind – or at least, in your subconscious. The very act of writing that list means you’re focused and serious. It sends a signal to the universe that you want to finish this. Badly! And it sends a signal to your characters that I’m here and I’m not giving up on you. And – maybe most importantly – it sends a signal to yourself. You’ll find yourself mulling over small things. In the middle of an afternoon meeting, you’ll find yourself jotting down a new transition for between scenes, one that’s brilliant and perfect. On your morning walk, you’ll suddenly have the solution to a character’s problem pop into your mind. You’ll find that tackling the mechanical issues pave the way for you to focus on the ones that require your creativity and focus.

Writing can be lonely, yes. And frustrating. But if you’re like me, the list can help it be a little less frustrating.

 

A link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can get Write It Down, Make It Happen:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/write-it-down-make-it-happen-klauser-henriette-anne/1121692444?ean=9780684850023

Here’s a link to a similar post from 2015:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/falling-back-in-love-with-your-manuscript/

And a clip from Oprah, where Jim Carrey tells the story of the check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXwVD2ncqfE

Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

“But that’s MY novel!” When your idea is written by someone else.

At some point, it’ll probably happen. You’ll have this FANTASTIC idea for a novel. The characters are unique. The setting is all yours. The plot – hah! No one will EVER come up with this! You’re feeling great. You start to dig into the research . . . and come to a screeching halt when the first thing you Google turns out to be . . .

Your novel.

Written by someone else. 

How could this be? You were so sure! Unique characters! Your setting! A plot no one else could ever come up with! Then WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL DOING ON SOMEONE ELSE’S AUTHOR’S PAGE ON AMAZON?????

I know. It sucks. Been there, done that. Sort of, anyway. Mine was more creepy than this, though. I’ve been working on an urban fantasy series for a while now, and I think my plot and characters are pretty unique to the story. Without giving too much away, in one of the books, secondary character Bridget is possessed by a demon at a church, and my MC, Erin, is desperately trying to save her. Only my beta readers have seen it. Then one day, I decided to attend a writing group at my local library, just to see what it was about. Imagine my shock when one woman started to read a scene from her novel . . . involving characters named exactly the same names as mine, and set in a church and a demon has possessed one of them. 

I seriously don’t think I breathed for about ten minutes. No, it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as if she’d grabbed my manuscript and tried to pass it off as hers. But damn! It was close enough. And it still creeps me the hell out. (And no, I never went back.)

But you’ve probably also heard the saying there are no new stories. And it’s kind of true. Look at how many people came out of the woodwork to blast JK Rowling for infringement over some things in the Harry Potter novels (none of which, BTW, were held up). I still swear I’ve heard the term ‘muggle’ before from some book I read as a child, but I can’t tell you which one. And I don’t really care, either.

Here’s the thing:  you can write a story and it can be similar to another, or it can have certain similarities. But will it be word for word, 100%, just like it? NO. Why? Because you wrote it, and you’re bringing different views, different experiences and justifications, different expectations, different research, to the process.

Take my own example as a – well, example. Without knowing anything more about that woman’s idea and manuscript other than what she read aloud to us, I can tell you that we were going in VERY different directions. I can tell you that our characters were creme brulee and Jell-O (see, I took inspiration from My Best Friend’s Wedding there!) – my Erin is kick-ass and street smart, argumentative and stubborn, and quite likely an agnostic (though we’ve never really discussed it); her Erin was quiet, depressed, faithful but doubting that faith. My characters are best friends; hers were mother/daughter. Just due to their very different outlooks on life, our characters should make very different choices – which will influence the directions of the novels. It was also very clear that hers’ was a Christian novel. Mine is – not. 🙂

I can’t imagine the gutting, wrenching sensation you must get when you find a book already published that, on first glance, is just like yours. I can’t imagine spending years working on a novel, only to find that its doppelganger was published just a few months ago – or maybe, God forbid, years ago. But – when you can breathe and when you can think without hard liquor in your hand – look at it rationally. Sure, on the outset there may be quite a few similarities. Look deeper. How is yours different – and more importantly, how is yours better? 

In a blog post, author Bryn Donovan wrote:

I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.

How true is this? Think abut the books you read growing up. You and I may or may not have read the same things, but in many classrooms across the country, certain books are required reading, and librarians certainly know what we want to read and what’s popular, and strive to put those books in our hands. And even if you haven’t read the books, you are probably familiar with the movies. We’re all inspired by the things around us. Everything we see, read, watch, and learn becomes part of us, and probably, in some way or another, will make it into our novels. We may not be aware of it, but it’s true.

There have always been hero quests. There always will be. A young boy finds out he is the only one who can save the world. Let’s see. Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara. Harry Potter. Star Wars. In fact, look at the plots of Harry Potter and Star Wars for a second. As Melissa Donovan points out in her blog, their plots are uncannily similar:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

So if you’ve got that in mind – it’s okay! What can YOU bring to the idea to make it fresh and yours?

Or this one:  a girl falls in love with a boy who isn’t what he seems to be. Twlight. The Vampire Diaries. The Mortal Instruments. Beauty and the Beast. Even Cinderella (if, of course, you flip the genders). Make it yours (though I will tell you, shape-shifters seem WAY overdone at the moment, and for the love of God, do NOT put  a menage-a-trois in your shape-shifter novel thinking that will make it fresh – it won’t. Just. Won’t.).

It even happens to the big authors. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about just this:  her husband told her a story about an effort to build a highway through the Brazilian jungles, but when the project had to be abandoned, the jungle swallowed the entire thing – the road, the machinery, all of it. She loved the idea. She adored it. She had a love affair with it. And then she got sidetracked by life and the idea left her – but then, months later, she discovered that Ann Patchett was writing a book about the exact same thing. There were differences, but the plots were eerily similar. As she puts it:  “. . . we each counted backwards on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it. Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time.”

See, fantastic ideas are just that – and if it occurred to you, there’s no doubt it occurred to someone else, too. The key is to make sure you bring enough of yourself to the novel to make it yours. 

And just to prove that there are no new ideas under the sun, here’s a sample of blog posts and forums about this exact topic:

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/04/26/someones-already-written-a-story-like-the-one-youre-writing-and-thats-okay/

https://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/are-there-any-original-writing-ideas-left

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?112580-Writing-a-novel-and-then-realize-another-book-has-a-similar-plot

https://theawl.com/this-witch-wrote-my-book-bb480ee9d264#.z77xha56w

And here’s a previous post I wrote about seeing Liz Gilbert in person:  An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂