Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category
This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of meeting author Eloisa James at my local RWA chapter meeting. As she spoke, my mind wandered – not in an Oh-not-another-boring-meeting way- but in a synapses-firing-at-warp-speed way. Eloisa admits she is a pantser not a plotter but likes to truly know her characters before she starts a story. Listening to her as well as the members sitting near me reminded me of a blog post (forgive me, I can’t remember whose) where we’d discussed ways to know your characters. I’d posted a comment about one technique I use to get to know my characters: I take them shopping.
Shopping tells you a lot about a person. Does your hero favor designer labels over knock-offs or simply doesn’t care if his clothes come from Armani or Costco? Does your heroine scour the clearance racks or spend outside her budget on whims? How do they manage long lines and crowded parking lots? Are they rude to store employees?
My two teenage sons would prefer to peel the skin off their bodies with a butter knife than go shopping with me. They’re content with any pair of jeans as long as they’re not Rap brands. (Since I twitch and shake when I see a guy with droopy-drawer jeans on, this makes me very happy.) They don’t care much for status labels, either. In many ways, this makes my life easy but since I frequently have to shop alone and return stuff later, it can also be inconvenient.
I jotted down all the ideas I had:
Put him on stage
Is your character comfortable in the spotlight or would he prefer to borrow the butter knife from my sons? Perhaps it’s not a stage but a business presentation. Does your heroine avoid public speaking, practice in front of a mirror for days, or just wing her presentation? Maybe it’s a swanky cocktail party. Does your hero hold up the walls or mingle? Does he work the room or is he busy plotting his early exit? Maybe it’s a speech at school for your YA characters. Gah!
Send them to therapy
What are the deep, dark secrets that haunt your characters? You know, the things that would come up in therapy, like parents that never understood her or expected too much. Did he witness a crime when he was a toddler that still causes flashbacks? Does she have any phobias like Triskaidekaphobia?
Work these into your plot.
Run the numbers
During a break in Eloisa’s speech, one of our members suggested numerology. Take your character’s name and visit a website like this. It may interest you to know that my full name, Patricia Ann Blount, totals 73 and that my soul urge number is 3. Here’s what the site has to say about that:
Word skills may be your thing; speaking, writing, (Hello!) acting, singing. In a positive sense, the 3 energy is friendly, outgoing and always very social.
Most of it is true for me, except the singing part. Dogs howl when I sing. Ears bleed. It’s …not pretty. Use numerology or astrology to gather traits for your characters. You could even use the meanings of names to guide you. I did this in SEND when my MC had to change his name. He chose Daniel because it means God is my judge.
Suffer the bureaucracy
How would your hero fare in line at your local motor vehicles department? What about navigating one of those automated phone systems that have him pressing 1 incessantly? Even the most patient people I know are frustrated by these experiences.
Load up the straws
Ever have a week or month where things go horribly, insanely awry? Not just a bad day, but a continuous string of bad, unexpected and bizarre things? Brakes go one fire on one car just as your spouse takes the other car for the day. Imagine the last time you experienced a period of extended bad luck and put your characters in the same situation. What’s the melt down like? My melt downs involve tears and chocolate. My husband’s involve colorful language and flying objects and credit card bills to replace the things that broke as he flung them across a room. My mother’s were rants accompanied by slamming doors.
Give them the flu
If you have children, think about how they behave when they’re sick. My sons only wanted to be held when they were little. All day. By me and nobody else. Now that they’re teens, they just stay in bed and sleep. There’s a commercial currently on TV that pokes fun at the “man cold” but my point is, you never really know someone until you have to care for them when they’re sick.
You know the old adage you never know someone until you have to live with them? Imagine your MCs as room mates. Does he leave the toilet seat up and toothpaste globs in the sink? Does she hang panties and bras on the shower rod and spend all her spare money on tabloids? Perhaps she NEVER eats at the table, but only in front of the TV? Does she get up early or stay up late? Does he hog the covers in bed? Can he operate the lawn mower or does he hire someone to keep the grass mowed?
Take a peek inside the bathroom. Does she keep her cosmetics and feminine products scattered on every available surface or hide them neatly away? Is his toe fungus cream sitting on the toilet tank lid?
Armed with a list of traits and characteristics, look for places where conflict can be introduced. Perhaps you’ve discovered your MC is like my sons – he ABHORS shopping, but falls for a woman who is a buyer for a major designer, or owns an antique shop. Or, make the conflict internal – the character who hates to shop must now do so regularly for an ill parent.
Use Eloisa’s Character Bible suggestion to keep it all straight. And then, get to work.
While waiting for my mother, who was undergoing oral surgery, I spent forty minutes observing the oral surgeon’s office staff working it, if you know what I mean.
The staff, all women in their twenties, and probably all intelligent women under usual circumstances, completely dissolved into four giggling, tittering morons in the presence of a good-looking patient. I sat in the waiting room, hoping the floor would swallow me whole, while the group turned periodontal care into a flirtation. Apparently, the word ‘spit’ is sexy. Who knew?
But I digress. The girls’ antics reminded me of a book I’d just finished in which the heroine couldn’t string together two words in front of her boyfriend’s rockstar dad. This got me thinking… why are women reduced to a bowl of Jello around male coolness? Are we really hard-wired for dumbness or are we just perpetuating the stereotype?
I considered this for a few minutes. Hell, anything to prevent gagging over the floor show. I’m smart. My IQ is higher than my shoe size. I win at Jeopardy often. I have never feigned ignorance of a subject in which I excelled just to please a guy. While sitting there, patting myself on the back, it dawned on me with all the horror of checking my reflection on a date only to discover I’d spent the whole night with a big ol’ spot of lettuce in my teeth that I’d permitted a character to behave in just this way.
I should be publicly flogged and I hang my head in shame.
The lead character in my current WIP wants desperately to be judged on her aptitude, not her looks. Kind of hard to do when she keeps forgetting how to speak in front of the hero. Watching the office assistants trip over their own tongues in front of Hot Dental Patient, I vowed to go straight home and revise the entire meet-cute scene.
Phew. That was close.
Where do you find cliches and stereotypes sneaking into your writing? Discuss. I promise not to gag.
My Google Reader contained a cool link on Monday afternoon. Sean Ferrell, a brilliant author and Twitter pal, posted an essay about the many desks in his life. Sean notes he has a desk at work, a desk at home, but writes his fiction on his lap while riding the subway. I thoroughly enjoyed his post because except for one detail, our stories are pretty much the same. I told him this in an email and he said I should put this on my blog, so now you know who to blame (wide grin).
Like Sean, I have a desk at work. Mine is standard cubicle furniture. An L-shaped counter with a bank of drawers at each end, an overhead shelf with a light under it, and in the corner, a slide-out tray for my keyboard. I have two monitors: a flat panel and the laptop’s built-in display. I have an adjustable chair with a Velcro lumbar cushion that I constantly adjust throughout my day. I love this cushion. It helps me focus on the technical writing work I must do at this desk instead of on the pain in my back that results from too many hours spent at it.
The walls are covered in tack surface. In addition to the few dozen pictures of my sons, these walls are covered with company awards and memos, a heart-shaped love note from my youngest that says “Brown-eyed girl” in shaky, kindergarten printing, a sign that says, “This technical writer is powered by chocolate”, and a treasured print-out from the blog of author Jeff Somers, an author I greatly admire and whose books I thoroughly enjoy, because he replied to a comment I’d posted with “Patty-that’s genius!” Beside that is a print-out of a screen shot I took one day after returning to my desk to see several of my Twitter pals discussing someone in glowing terms. “Triple-threat,” one said. “Talent, brains, beauty,” said another.
I’m not ashamed to tell you I shed tears that day. I hung up the screen-shot so I’d never forget the emotions those few tweets stirred in me, or forget to thank the kind people who posted them.
On the left side of the L, I have a pair of Slinky toys, the glasses I never wear, a corporate version of a Magic 8 Ball, and a stress ball. When I write technical instruction, much happens inside my head before I put fingers to keyboard. I find playing with toys helps me to focus on these mental tasks. On the other side of the L is an empty candy dish. I ate all the candy that was once inside it and can’t bring myself to discard it… or refill it. Beside my phone is a dainty cup with my name on it. Patricia – Enchanting spirit, full of grace and honor. Hmm. They must have forgotten the chocolate.
Unlike Sean, I do write fiction at this desk, but it’s technical fiction, which is often what the first draft of any user guide really is… until we work the kinks out of a new software product. By the time the software is released, my technical fiction is now technical instruction.
At home, I never had a desk of my own. I wrote on the dining room table, in my bed, on the sofa, on the deck, wherever I needed to be (praise the wonder of the wireless internet connection!). I lust after Twitter pal Tawna Fenske’s desk and love planning where I might, someday (when finances and the planets align) install a dream desk but those are long-term plans. To suit my immediate needs, I spent a wonderful weekend cleaning up my college-bound son’s room to take it over as my private writing office. It has a fairly large Ikea desk that was suitable for the kind of spreading out I like to do when I have a few hours of time to devote to a writing project. Tools like my “master the craft” books, my enormous newsprint pad on which I outline, Post-it notes of scene ideas and dialogue I want to use, cut-outs of celebrities and models who resemble my main characters to “get me in the mood.” It was perfect!
I used it once.
My dad, after a tiff with his fiancé, found himself temporarily homeless. He moved into my son’s room not three days after my cleaning spree and there went my dedicated writing space. As the weeks went by, Dad steadily cleared out a self-storage unit of various furnishings and brought me a desk. It’s gorgeous. An antique French writing desk with a drop-leaf and half a dozen little cubbies to hold Post-its, pens, maybe an emergency pack of M&Ms. I love that, finally, after all these years, I have my very own desk, but you know what? It was never built for a computer, so I find using it for writing marathons to be uncomfortable. Alas, I am still writing on the dining room table, the sofa, my bed, the deck when Mother Nature cooperates, even the kitchen counter while dinner simmers.
Unlike Sean, I don’t have a subway commute. But I do understand the point he makes about making the most of the writing time you have. I wrote my first novel at my son’s hockey games. It began because I’m not a typical sports parent. I hate when the tempers flare and the passion blinds people to the fact that these are KIDS. So, I began sitting outside in the snack bar area instead of in the stands. The rink is around the block from my office, and I used to meet the boys there after work. Since the laptop belongs to my employer, I could not leave it in my car and risk having it stolen, so it came inside with me. Out of boredom, I wrote PENALTY KILLER, a novel about a man found murdered in the parking lot of the local ice rink, after a very loud and public argument with another player’s dad gets him bounced from the game.
Like most parents, I spend a lot of time driving one or both of my sons to various engagements. I drag the laptop with me because you never know when you’ll have fifteen minutes to wait. I’ve written entire chapters in these chunks of time. In fact, when I do sit down to write for an hour or two, I find myself unable to focus. I think the pressure of a deadline – whether it’s a subway stop or the end of a hockey game – provided that impetus.
Your turn! What’s on your desk?
Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, twitter pal Tawna Fenske just snorted and said, “You said hard. Heh.”
Sorry to disappoint you, but ‘hard’ in this blog post refers to ‘challenging’, ‘arduous’, ‘demanding’, even ‘Herculean.’
And somewhere in New York, author Sean Ferrell just snorted and said, “That’s what she said.”
Difficult! That’s the word, people! I’m talking about difficult writing tasks. For some people, it’s writing sex scenes that fills them with dread, for others, it’s dialog, and for pretty much all of us except the Wonder that is Jeff Somers, it’s writing query letters.
I have a long list of writing challenges that I’ve decided to address as part of my 2011 resolutions. I’m writing more short stories because brevity is one of those challenges. Writing riveting opening scenes is another one. But this week on Twitter, tweeps Jessica Lemmon (@lemmony), Patricia McLinn (@PatriciaMclinn) and Heidi Betts (@HeidiBetts) helped me analyze a real thorn in my side.
The problem? Describing the silent laugh people do when something is NOT funny. It’s a “Yeah, right” laugh, full of sarcasm but no mirth. Is it a “snort?” Is it a “snork?” Perhaps it’s a “chortle?” I don’t know and I can’t stand it anymore!
Here are some ways I’ve treated this problem:
- “You’re right,” she shook her head and laughed once. “You always are, even when you aren’t.”
- “Yeah. You would think that.” His face warmed and he managed half a laugh.
- “I love him.” She finally admitted it with a shrug and a soft laugh, a sound that screamed pain.
Why does this bug me so much? I suppose it has ties to my issues with brevity. Why isn’t there a single word that conveys the sort of sarcastic, unhappy, embarrassed anything-but-happy laugh I’ve tried to describe? Why must I use a phrase – indeed, an entire sentence, to describe a single expression?
I’m frustrated. But, as Heidi pointed out, it’s creative writing so we’re allowed to be creative. I’ll continue in my quest to find the perfect way to show the emotion I’m looking for. Meanwhile, are there any parts of writing challenge you?
‘Fess up. I promise I won’t laugh, snort, chuckle or chortle.