Tag Archives: story

Character Consideration

Working on the edit today, I realized a thing.

When I set about the not-insignificant task of changing Accidentally Inspired from a stage play to a novel, one of many changes I orchestrated on the front end (read: before I actually got into the draft and all the pieces started coming off like a bunch of janky flywheels) was the addition of a love interest.

It seemed natural.  Still seems natural.  She’s not out of place in the narrative.  I think I gave her a totally plausible raison d’etre or however you say that fancy French thing.  I like her character, but I’m not like in love with her character (that would mean I had invented a character too perfect and would therefore be a Bad Thing).  She plays a role in the story but is not, strictly speaking, critical to it.  All in all, for a late addition to the party, I’m pretty pleased with her.  However, I’m afraid that she may be entirely out of place in the novel.

I can’t be sure.  I waited a good six, seven weeks to dive in and start the edit, which I think has been enough time for me to distance myself from the prose.  However, in reading this character, I begin to wonder.  When I originally conceived of this idea, oh, let’s just call it ten years ago, the principal ten characters sprung immediately and organically into being.  Each played his or her role perfectly, fitting together like jigsaw pieces.  Now, revisiting the story, changes are inevitable.  As I’ve noted before while I was writing the draft, in its translation to the long-form novel, the story has sprouted new legs and arms, a tail and a few new tongues.  New characters sprung up like strangling weeds, and strangely, each seems to fit the new narrative just as well — if in a smaller capacity — as the originals.  To be fair, the love interest fits in there, too.  But to stick with the puzzle metaphor, the thing is not finished yet.  I’ve got the edges and the corners built, and I’m working my way in to the meaty center, and a lovely picture of a foggy London Bridge is taking shape.  Problem is, the love interest sure looks like a foggy bit of bridge or possibly a bit of misty waterfront, but it’s possible, just possible, that she’s a piece of the Golden Gate instead.  You know, she’d fit the theme, but it’d be wrong to say she was intrinsically a part of things.

Problem is, of course, that now the demon of doubt has its scouring claws in my brainmeats over the whole thing, and now my entire take on the character is tinged with the unmistakable feel of overthinking.  Am I resisting her because she’s not a part of the original narrative and thus feels unnatural?  Is she just fine where she is and she’s only tripping my radar because I’m hypersensitive to imperfections in the draft?  Maybe she’s truly honestly unnecessary and I’m ignoring my genuine justified doubt over her in a bid to cater to a hypothetical audience I’ve not even earned yet?  Probably, as with so many things involved in this process, it feels murky because the mushy center of this narrative cake hasn’t finished cooking yet, and I won’t really be able to iron out an answer until I clean up the story a good bit.  Maybe my keyboard needs more chemicals to properly ponder the question.

One way or another, I’m going to have to make a call on this girl sooner or later.  Problem is, having woven her somewhat intricately into the draft, I’m terrified at the prospect of having to remove her thread.  If there’s nothing wrong with her and I cut her out, then I’ve defaced this tapestry ostensibly for nothing.  On the other hand, if she’s poisoned and I don’t cut her out, she could rot the whole project from the inside.

Like so many other things, the best I can do for now is flag her for further consideration and toss her on the pile of “deal with this later.”  That’s a pile of problems I started in the draft and which is growing at an alarming rate since I picked up the edit.  I imagine that in just a little while it will develop its own gravity and pull me through a ripple in spacetime where my story will stretch out to infinity and the only sustenance I’ll have is my own failed, mangled prose, squealing like that belly-alien thing in Total Recall for me to put it out of its misery.

Why “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a Problem

Not sure I could identify the cause of it, but one way or another, I’ve found myself reading a few articles and editorials lately that deal with The Bible; specifically, adapting The Bible as literature.  Like, I read a critique of Noah, and some examination of The Ten Commandments or something, and a few others.  One thing jumped out at me: virtually all of these examinations were particularly critical of their subject matter (the adaptation of course, not The Bible) and in particular they were critical of any filmmaker’s or screenwriter’s hubris in thinking they could improve upon “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.  The quotations and capitals are mine: invariably, when this statement is invoked by a believer it’s invoked casually, nonchalantly, as if this statement is a simple matter of painfully obvious fact.

I’m not here to start debates, and I’m not here to sermonize, or the opposite of sermonize, whatever that would be.  I just like to point things out and let them clunk around the old bean, like a goat swallowing stones to aid in its digestion.  Because language is important — it’s not just the what, but the way we say things that matters — calling The Bible “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is inherently problematic. Continue reading

How About a Graduation Speech that Doesn’t Suck?

One of my students came to me for help writing a speech today.  She’s in the running to be one of the speakers at graduation and wanted my help in ironing out some of the details.

She’d written … not a bad speech, but a boring one.  It bespoke the regular regurgitated platitudes of high school: these are the first days of the rest of our life, the things which seem so important now are really very small in the scheme of things, limitless potential, blah blah blah.  Nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly right, either.  I asked her what her goal was in this speech:  why did she want to give it, rather than let one of her classmates give it?  Why did she feel it was a speech worth giving?

She responded by saying that she wanted to write something people would enjoy.  HMM WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT, OH WAIT, THAT’S MY GOAL.  She said that she wanted to write something that her classmates could relate to. YEP THAT’S ME TOO.  It didn’t occur to me at the time but in retrospect, by which I mean a few minutes after she left the classroom, it struck me that her fears are the same as my own.  She wanted to write a speech with broad-based appeal, and it was falling flat.  She wanted to be inclusive to everybody, and ended up sounding placating and boring.  She wanted a speech that would be memorable, but had written something utterly forgettable.

Where had she gone wrong?  I dutifully examined the speech with her, taking it line by line and thinking of ways to strengthen this sentence, simplify that idea, and all that stuff.  But the underlying problem, the one that I couldn’t point to and say, “here’s where you screwed up,” was the absence of heart.  She was so focused on getting her audience to connect with the speech that she had forgotten to write something she could connect with.  As a result, and not surprisingly in the least, her words were bland, disjointed, and uninteresting.

What to do?  When words give you trouble, you bust out the WordHammer. Go for the jugular.  Write what’s real and immediate and bloody and visceral.  Throw judgment out the window, kick doubt right in its asgard, and write some TRUTH.

The theme of the speech is time?  I shared with her a paradox which baffles me every day.  The days are so long, but the years are so short.  Every day it feels like there are so many hours to fill.  There’s time to go for a run.  There’s time to go to work.  There’s time to do a bit of writing.  Cook dinner.  Play with my kid.  Relax with my wife.  Watch some TV.  Read a few chapters.  Do some laundry.  So much time.  And yet, it feels like my high school’s 10-year reunion (such as it was) was just a few short weeks ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was five years ago.)  For that matter, it feels like I was in high school just a few years ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was MORE THAN five years ago.)  My son is two, running circles around me in the yard and counting to ten and happily calling out the color of every object in the house, but it feels like just last month he was a newborn, red-faced and squalling and unable to even roll over on his back without help.  I told her those things and reminded her that the days are long but the years are short, then I asked her why she suddenly seemed enraptured.

“I just hadn’t considered your life before.”

It’s indicative of the human condition, I think, that we turn inward.  That we focus on the immediate, that we focus on ourselves.  But it’s that very tendency that limits us as storytellers.  It’s a bizarre paradox.  To tell the best story to the widest audience, we have to make it accessible and real.  But to make it accessible and real, we have to forget about appealing to the audience and share the gooey, tasty bits of ourselves that we never think to tell about.  Try too hard to appeal and the story sounds forced, awkward, and hollow; tell a personal and nuanced tale and suddenly readers you don’t even know can relate.

You know that old adage about the student becoming the teacher?  The other half of the equation is that the teacher sometimes becomes the student.

Things I learned:

1.  Know what you want to say.  My student was so preoccupied with giving a good speech that she hadn’t bothered to determine whether she was delivering a message worth sharing.  The message matters.  In a lot of ways, it’s all that matters.

2.  Focus on the story before you focus on the audience.  The story has to come first.  After you know the story, then you can fine-tune the words and the metaphors and the way you tell it to your specific audience.  But if the story sucks, no amount of turd-polishing or clever wordplay will make it not suck.

So she left feeling better about her speech (I think) and I got back to work on my story with perhaps a bit more clarity and confidence.  Twelve hundred words today, and I think they tell a pretty good story.

By the way, I’m not sure if it’s a bastardization of a better known aphorism or what, but I first heard “the days are so long, but the years are so short” a few years back from my dad, and it proves more and more true every long day and short year.  Thanks, dad, for helping me to see something I hadn’t before.  (ALSO, SEE, I DO LISTEN.)

Zen and the Art of Shut Up and Write

Gawd, it’s been a rough week for my writing. Hard to find the time, hard to find the motivation, hard to even read what I’ve written.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt was exceptionally loud in my ears this morning, and I think he must have eaten a ton of garlic bread last night, because his breath was AWFUL, and he was not in the least apologetic about it. At any rate, during my tuning-up phase this morning, I went back and re-read the last few pages, as is my wont, and realized that there is a problem. It’s not going anywhere.
Continue reading

Keep Calm and…


Time, as they say, marches on.

Yesterday’s roadblock felt like a monstrous one.  I am happy to say, however, that as with all things, a bit of time and a simple willingness to return to work and keep moving forward have righted the ship.

I am sure that it must unnerve some writers to think of writing a book this way: only having a few high points of plot mapped out, flying by the seat of my pants through the bulk of it.  I’ll be honest, part of it’s simply that I’m lazy: going through and writing a detailed outline is a lot of work that I’m not inclined to do.  But another part of it — and a bigger part, for that matter, I will maintain — is that I really think it’s crazy to assume that I know at the outset all the twists and turns the story will take.

Story is a living thing.  It’s created by characters who want things, and as a result are chasing those things, working behind the scenes to achieve those things, constantly bending their entire existence toward finding those things.  Trying to predict the characters’ movements is a bit like trying to track a rabbit through a forest from orbit.  Sure, with the proper satellite equipment I can see the rabbit down there.  But as soon as it starts to move, it’s going to dip, dart, and dive, dashing under bushes and over branches and around foxes and where it ends up is anybody’s guess.  You can’t follow it from a distance.  If you want to know what the rabbit is going to do, you have to get down on its level.  See what it sees.  BE THE RABBIT.

So exhaustively planning a story just doesn’t make sense to me.  What makes more sense is developing characters with clear goals, putting them in an arena, and cranking up the heat.  A funny thing happens when you give characters the leeway to act on their own, when you don’t plot their path for them.  They surprise you.  They take turns that you weren’t expecting.  I thought that my female lead was the type to put her head down and plow through obstacles that jumped in her path, but she surprised me by rabbiting out and running in the opposite direction. Likewise, I thought my male lead was going to shut down and withdraw in the face of a setback, but like a river breaking around a rock, he has simply bounced off and begun to cut a new path.

I consider it one of the coolest parts of being a writer: that characters can (and regularly do) surprise me.  That even though I’m technically in the driver’s seat of the story, much more often I feel like a passenger just peeking out the window and enjoying the ride.  Or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, a jockey holding on for his life while the story bucks and kicks and does its DonDraperedest to throw me off.  It can be a wild ride, no doubt.  Terrifying.  From one moment to the next, I can’t tell where the story will take me next.  I know where it’s headed, but like driving in a pouring rain, I’m taking it on good faith that there will be road under my tires, ground under my feet, wind under my wings in a few seconds.

But even if there isn’t?  Here’s another cool part about being a writer:  I get to write about the fall.  The car ends up in a ditch?  I get to hop out of the car and continue the journey on foot.  The wind fails and I plummet to earth?  I get to build a parachute on the way down.  The monster catches me and swallows me up from behind?  I get to slice my way out through its swollen, writer-gorged belly.  Whether it goes the way I expect or not, the story is over when I say it’s over.  There’s no such thing as running out of time.  I can send this thing to overtime as many times as I need to until it turns out in a way I like.

This is actually what my novel is all about: the fact that a story is not a thing that can be nailed down, that the things you plan for are rarely the things that come to pass, that people you think you know exceedingly well can still surprise you.  I’m hoping that it stays accessible in print the way it worked on the stage.  I think it will, but even if it doesn’t, it’s teaching me — in a lot of ways, all over again — that as long as I can stay true to the story, I can trust in the story to find a good way to be told.

Twelve hundred solid words today, and they came easy, despite yesterday’s fears that today I’d be stuck.  Writing is awesome.

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