inasmuch as it concerns Building Character:
Protagonists. Antagonists. Second-string chorus members. Meeting them, getting to know them, telling them what I want them to do, and finding out they don't want to do it, the bastards.
Day 26: I Knew It, But I Didn't KNOW I Knew It
I've been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2002. How many times have I written a new novel draft? You do the math. Then add a conservative one or two for the trunk novels that I peck at from time to time on no particular schedule. This "don't bother getting it right; just get it down" thing, I have done it a lot.
So you'd think that by now I'd have learned all there was to know about "don't bother getting it right" and "just get it down." You'd think.
Apparently you'd be wrong.
This past week has involved a lot of uncertainty. Lia and Jet light out on the run after escaping Montrose Manor--then what happens? Then, apparently, we spend a lot of time changing motel rooms and arguing... until we finally stumble upon the next possible plot point. Both Jet and Lia spend time with no-good guys they've gotten involved with for dubious reasons, and this goes on for several nights... until something finally kicks loose and I know how the "everybody dies" scene comes together. After that, Jet spends a lot of time in Uberreality (only it's not "time," because time and space aren't real) keeping herself to herself and avoiding all contact with her colleagues and employers... until I finally realize exactly what Chender is up to and what their Employer's reaction to this is and how Jet's next assignment will lead to her own personal There Is No Spoon moment and...
And here's the thing. Sometimes you just have to send your characters out into the formless primordial stuff of story, not to live the plot they ought, but rather as your avatars in the fiction mines, trying to find the next piece of plot. Sometimes you just have to spend 5,000 words writing three nights of arguing and fighting in a motel room, knowing that not a single word of it will make it to the final draft but writing it anyway, because there is no other way to find out what happens next.
And I knew this. But I didn't really know it, not until today. This past week I've been coming back to the book with great reluctance, unwilling to write another non-plot-moving 2,000 words of "And then Lia went for another walk in the desert, and looked at the pretty cacti and the red sandstone rock formations, and nearly got bit by a snake, and 'Michael' met up with her again and they exchanged some witty banter and unresolved sexual tension, and then Lia went back to the motel room and had an argument with Jet, and then Jet went out and had another date with Mr. Totally Wrong Who Might Be Useful, and..." This sort of reluctance is new to me this year, because this year I am determined to finish not just 50,000 words but also the book by November 30. I don't reach "The End" in a timely manner if I'm constantly writing time-waster scenes on my way to the next brainstorm. But I've gotta.
Today it paid off. I opened a brand new blank scene, and, unwilling to start flailing around at Jet Grieving In Uberreality And Being Very Antisocial For, Lacking A Better Phrase, Several Days... I started jotting down the lines that Jet's Employer would say when Jet finally consented to listen. And then I started filling in Jet's thoughts between them. And before them. And suddenly I was writing an actual scene with pacing and movement and revelation and reaction.
And now I know what happens next.
See? It works! But I really need to spend the entire three hours of tomorrow's write-in writing down What Happens Next, because it feels like my characters sure spent a lot of November fishing in the primordial ooze.
But they didn't waste that time. It really was time well-spent. And now, I hope, I really understand that. In my 9th year of NaNoWriMo, it's really about time.
If this were Earth, I would say that days passed. But time is only fiction, and what passes is only me. The eternal now contracts around me to a point shaped like Lia's bedroom. I wrap myself in my human shape, so that I can bury my head beneath the crimson-gold-paisley quilt and breathe her scent where in lingers in the ivory sheets. A copper hair lies upon one of the pillows; I don't touch it, but lay beside it so that its breadth magnifies in my blurred vision. Each moment that passes is the same moment, and each breath I take is the same breath. And yet with each breath the scent fades, and my ability to furnish it from memory fades as well.
As I curl around the pillow, clutching it to my tightly, the voice of my Employer echoes about the room, bouncing off the fictitious walls that are my awareness and my being. Jetta. Speak to me, Jetta.
I hug the imaginary pillow tighter and say nothing.
Jetta. Please come back. You are needed.
Day 2: When Characters Decide To Be Real
- 3,457 wds. long
"So what are you writing about this year?" Common question. Probably the most-asked question between Boulder Wrimos last night. My answer? "It's an urban fantasy involving an interdimensional assassin and a woman who's unhealthily turned on by danger." And I haven't been very pleased with that answer, because it makes the assassin, Jet, sound like the only real character in the book. It turns Lia into a sort of mentally deranged caricature who is of course going to be attracted the first James Bond clone who comes along.
Today I wrote the scene where Lia has just picked a hitchhiking Jet on her way south out of town. Jet is bruised and bloody and has just stepped out in front of Lia's car. Now she's Lia's passenger, and she's getting interrogated about what she was up to just now.
Now, before I wrote this scene, while Lia was still an uncomfortably two-dimensional danger-addict, I imagined her losing control of the car as Jet described her most recent assignment. For no better reason than she found the story all exciting and arousing and stuff.
Stupid. Very stupid. But it was all I had.
Then I actually wrote the scene and realized Lia had a connection to Jet's victim, and what turned Lia on was knowing that the bastard was dead.
Miles roll by while I try to decide how far is far enough. They never say. Lia breaks the silence, all abrupt and suspicious: "Were you really trying to kill yourself?"And I'm thinking, that's a relief. Lia has some back story now, and she's starting to look potentially rounded as a character. You know. Rather than flat.
How much do I tell her? What harm can it do? But not much good, either. "Maybe for a moment there."
"Well, then, for a moment there, you were a fucking jerk." I watch her hands grip the wheel tighter. "You want to kill yourself, you can do it without dragging someone else into your drama. Fucking jerk." Silence again, for just a moment. Then she yanks at the volume knob. Old school punk music soars and batters my dream ears. For the briefest of moments I consider throwing myself out of the car. But no, this might not be far enough away from the scene of my assignment yet. I can't really be sure.
Ten miles I'm still not sure, but Lia turns down the volume again. "Why?"
I'm lost in thought by now, replaying my actions of the last two hours. My right shoulder feels wrenched: Ritchie, grabbing my wrist as I headed for the door. My mind's ear is faintly occupide with the noises Tresco made behind me as I escaped. A job well done is a joy to remember.
"Jet." The sound of my name brings me back to the here and now. I don't hear it often. "Why would you want to kill yourself?" Lia sounds oddly curious this time around, like one artist comparing techniques and preferences with another.
So I think about the question. I think about acceptable ways to answer it. It's never a good idea to get involved with non-involved characters in a dream, not even to the point of conversation. But it's not forbidden, either. What harm can it do? "I just killed a man," I tell her.
She jerks the wheel a little--surprise? Panic?--and punches the accellerator momentarily. When she eases off the pedal, her eyes stay wide. "It finally happened. Five years of picking up any hitchhiker I run across, I finally pick up a criminal." She sounds incongruously delighted. "Shit. An honest to God killer."
"Assassin." The correction is automatic, a reflex borne of long, intense training. "It's different. Well, to me anyway. It's all down to the reasoning."
She's silent awhile, smiling at the road. Outside, the desert is featureless, a far cry from Mapleton Ridge's depressing skyline. Yucca dot the ditch beyond the highway shoulder, and rock formations dominate the distance like the portfolio of an indifferent dilletante sculptor. "Who was he? The man you killed."
That's easy. Talking about other people is a lot easier than talking about myself. I don't have to be guarded. "Called himself Tresco. Leader of a gang calling themselves the Swifts."
Lia's putting on speed again. Just a little, but she's keeping it on this time. "Tresco."
She doesn't answer. Her knuckles whiten again. Then she laughs, hard and merciless, and I begin to wonder if I'll survive this ride. But that's OK. I'm far enough away now, I'm sure of it. "Tell me about it," Lia demands, sudden and decisive.
"I don't know much. He wasn't a very good gangster. I expected him to be more competent, but apparently he's--"
"Tell me how he died."
I glance at her, sidelong, and I see the set of her jaw. "What do you want to know?"
She grits her teeth--I hear them click and grind. "Make me see it. I want to be there."
Tomorrow: the car crash! A scene I'm pretty sure I know inside out, through and through. Which means I will probably get surprised again.
Epiphanies About Flash Fiction
- 500 wds. long
As I mentioned a few entries ago, "Sidewalks" is in rewrites. Which is an awesome thing, because without someone else to push me, I might have left the story alone, never knowing how much better it could be.
And it is better. It started out as a story about a guy whining generically about love lost after having witnessed an extraordinary event. And, well, it still is about that, but the whining is very specific, the love was lost in a particular way, and the extraordinary event is necessary and not easily replaceable by some other extraordinary event.
There are a lot more details in the story. Not necessarily spelled out--that was how I ruined earlier drafts--but they're concrete in my head. They weren't, before. The rewrite request forced me to think about these things, to do a little worldbuilding, for all that the world is our own and the story's only 500 words long.
If you'd asked me last year to tell you how I knew whether a story should be in "short" or "flash" form, I'd have told you, "Short stories are told via a single scene, or a series of scenes. Flash-length stories are implicit in a single moment." I'd still say that today, I think, but putting it that way leaves something important out.
The difference between short stories and flash fiction is in the word-length required to tell them. But a story's word-length is not the same as its size. Short stories and flash fiction stories are exactly the same size as each other, and as novel-length stories, trilogy-length stories, novena-length stories: as big as the world. The characters must be equally real, their worlds equally huge. Word length is simply the frame through which the reader views the story.
Which means there is worldbuilding to be done and characters to be developed, no matter how short the story form is. Developing them fully is necessary before the author can choose which words, which images and thoughts and dialogue, belong inside the picture frame.
Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, talks about the one-inch picture frame that sits on her desk and reminds her not to try to tackle the entire task at once. "Just take it bird by bird," she recalls her father telling her overwhelmed brother on the occasion of an overdue homework assignment; similarly, she tells herself to just take her own writing inch by square inch. But that square inch of story remains part of an entire world big enough to live in, big enough to encompass untold thousands of stories.
I've been writing flash fiction for years, but only now do I understood that the flash fiction form is hard.
"N.O. Woman Tells of 60 Years of Visions"
- 3,891 wds. long
Bares Her Life Secret To Members Of Dr. John Fletcher's Psychology Class. Says She Has Communicated With Spirits Of Other World Since She Was Five Years Old. Relates Her Shades Of Roosevelt, Gen. Grant, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll and Others Visited Her. Declares T. R. Urged Her To Inform World Of Her Experiences. She Was Once Governess To A Prince, She Says.The Williams Research Center is a quiet place of loveliness, from the front desk where the docent greets you and hands you the guest book to sign, to the beautfully-made lockers where things not allowed upstairs may stay securely for no extra charge, to the Acadian History exhibit with maps, paintings, and a glassed-in copy of Longfellow's Evangeline. And all of this is before you actually get into the records room.
The New Orleans Item-Tribune was a merging of the Morning Tribune and the Item, which I understand to have happened after my target date of January 19, 1930; but January 19 was a Sunday, and perhaps Sundays were different. In any case, once I had the JAN 1930 microfilm in the machine, I found that the heading on each page was indeed The Item-Tribune. I read, or skimmed, the January 19 edition from cover to cover.
It is very hard not to get distracted, browsing old newspapers of your home town. Everything is fascinating. Everything is recognizable. But the language of each story is almost fairy-tale alien, and I'm not just talking about the inevitable racist and xenophobic attitudes hard-wired into crime reports and population statistics. The details chosen to add color to a story, the adverbs and adjectives sprinkled over the top, the very choice of story material, these all reveal a very different world. I want to learn all about that world, because it gave birth by slow progressions to my world. I want to take the entire newspaper home with me and love it and hug it and give it cookies.
In any case, I thought I'd found something on the very first page, where a tenant's sudden death by, it is assumed, poison, is reported. The landlady heard him screaming in his room and called the ambulance. But the mention of this date in Gumbo Ya-Ya was supposed to be not another death, but "an account of this amazing instance of spectral assistance in making a financial success of a boarding house." So. Keep looking.
I think I struck gold on almost the last page of the January 19 edition, which was devoted in the main to the story whose headline I've titled this blog entry with. The woman in the story is "a 69-year-old French woman, who has lived in New Orleans for the past 10 years," and lives at 1429 St. Charles Avenue. Her name is Madame Marie Teresa Guizonnier. She "feels she is ready to tell about ... a strange double existence that she has kept secret for seven decades."
"Theodore Roosevelt has come and spoken to me. He has appeared in my room as I sat at my sewing; he has looked over my shoulder at the newspaper clippings and read them with me. He has told me things about the universe beyond that I think will startle the world," she says.Madame Guizonnier, a college-educated native of Alsace-Lorraine, first encountered spirits at the age of five. The description of her first visitation is reminiscent of Coraline's time behind the Other Mother's mirror. Seems she was punished for some transgression by being locked in a "chamber under the stairs."
"Houdini has stepped down to tell me of the unhappy time he is having adjusting himself in the spirit government. General Grant, always on his horse, has come riding from the clouds to encourage me in my messages with the spirits...."
"Suddenly I saw little girls sitting around me and holding dolls in their arms.Trying to link this up to the ghost story related in Gumbo Ya-Ya, however, is problematic. Here is the story's sole mention of Mark Twain:
I spoke to them and they answered. Soon I was able to carry on connected conversations with them, and I began to welcome the 'punishment' of being sent into the dark room. Later I could see the same children walking about the halls--even in daylight, and I talked with them too.
Mark Twain appears to her from time to time in a bed in which he continues to write, she says. He lies on his side and as he talks of his spiritual existence, he makes notes on paper placed on a little table beside his resting place.And as for "making a financial success of a boarding house," there is no mention in the story at all. In fact, her occupations are listed as "a nurse, a teacher, a governess to a Rumanian prince, a business woman, and a dressmaker." The occupation of landlady is mentioned not at all, though "business woman" might cover it. "Dressmaker" appears to be the current profession she practices at the time of the newspaper story, an occupation taken up to help her through a financial decline during her time in New York.
She moved to New Orleans in 1919 following the death of her husband, and was compelled to stay by her ghostly visitors.
"I did not intend to stay here when I first arrived. I have no further interest in the city. But whenever I attempt to leave, I find they will not let me. They demand that I continue to communicate with them."It's probable that the authors of Gumbo Ya-Ya conflated Madam Guizonnier's story with that of someone else, creating one narrative from a patchwork of dubious historical accounts. But I have time to read through a year and some of the newspaper every morning for the next week. And whatever I do find, there's story in it.
Hey, at least now my character has a name!
Congratulations! You Win A Day Off! (Just one, though.)
- 50,202 wds. long
So, yes, as of about 9:30 PM last night I completed the eking out of my 7th NaNoWriMo win. (7th? Good Gods--quickly assembles mental list of NaNoWriMo novel drafts of yore--Yes, that's right, I've done this every year since 2002!) "Eking out" because, once yWriter told me I had more than 50K words, I used its handy "Export obfuscated NaNoWriMo text" command, opened the resulting text file, Selected All (CTRL-A), Copied (CTRL-C), and Pasted (CTRL-V) this into the NaNoWriMo Word Count Validator, and was rewarded with a word count downsizing to about 49380. I think it's the usual deal where the em-dash formation I'm in the habit of using (word!--'nother word!) causes two words to count as one in more conservative word count algorithms. Whatever. So I went back to the scene I was working on, did another few paragraphs, tried again, and so forth until the word count you see here. And the purple "Winner!" bar and the proud happy Viking Longship image and the web page icons and all that.
So I took today off. Well, not off off; I had to tackle the household finances, which had sort of languished for a month and a half. Dug out all the bills from the pile of Stuff To Be Dealt With, some of them past due; paid them; pulled up the checking and saving accounts online and made sure my balances matched theirs; y'know. The stuff you ignore when you're frantically trying to meet a deadline. I got that done. But otherwise, today was a play day. I went to the gym and rocked out in the bouldering cave, and I went to IHOP with friends and played Puzzle Pirates until I was completing carpentry puzzles in my brain on the bike ride home.
Tomorrow, however, I write again. For one thing, the novel still isn't really done. I haven't really gotten my characters from point A to point B, where point A is "at each other's throats" and B is "angrily declaring love for each other". I still haven't entirely disentangled my idea of how the bad guy functions and how the main character plans to fight him/her/it, although I do understand how the main character actually ends up defeating it. And, as usual, I haven't figured out a useful denouement. A novel-length story will often exist in my head with a total Hannah-Barbera laugh-track ending ("Quick, someone say something goofy so we can all laugh and go home!") for months before I finally figure out how to tie the bow on that package.
Also, there are other stories than the Demonic Sweater Story that could be finished and sent out to meet the nice people.
So. Today was playtime. Tomorrow is back-to-work time. To be precise, tomorrow at 11:30 when some NaNoWriMo buddies and I will meet up for coffee and writing time. Just because the calendar's ticked over from November to December doesn't mean the write-ins have to stop.
In Which I Entertain Myself, or "Writing: Ur Doin It Rite"
- 32,691 wds. long
Writing is an occupation with very few instances of external positive feedback. At least, for the beginning/amateur/unpublished writer. You're functioning in a vacuum most of the time. Sometimes you send out a story, and most of the time it comes back with a rejection letter attached. If you're lucky, the rejection letter says something like, "Sorry we couldn't use your story this time. It's really well-written and we hope you will continue to think of us." But most of the time the writer has to look inside for confirmation.
This, by the way, is one reason that peer critique groups might be popular. It isn't just the pragmatic necessity of getting comments from someone who doesn't already have the story living in their brain; it's also the chance to get someone in the real world to say, "Hey, this is good stuff. It has some flaws you need to fix, but you know what? You really are a writer."
That's my theory, anyway. A theory. The one I'm working on today.
Internal positive feedback comes in several flavors, most of which a writer has to discover herself. The most common one, I've found, is the simple enjoyment of the process. Writing is quite definitely work, but it is often fun too, especially in the rough draft phase. Which is something NaNoWriMo has going for it. NaNoWriMo is all about rough draft and having fun. And the fun comes in a bunch of flavors itself: the fun of telling a story no one else has heard yet because you made it up; the fun of knowing you can tell a story, that you are capable of inventing stuff whole cloth out of your head; the fun of being surprised when characters do something unexpected, or, if you prefer to sound less insane than that, the fun of suddenly having an unexpected idea about what your characters should do.
Me, I think the insane-sounding stuff is fun precisely because it sounds insane. Hell, I believe in magic. With or without a k at the end. I converted to Wicca partly out of a rebellion against the mundanity of the world: "The Goddess is too alive and magic is too afoot, so there!" I will cheerfully tell you that I expected yesterday's portion of the story to go one way, but that my characters had another plan, and if you tell me that my characters cannot have a plan because they are not real, I will blow a raspberry at you because they are too real, so there, thththbbbp!
For instance, here's what happened yesterday. Here was my plan. I expected Rocket to throw a tantrum and storm out when he couldn't convince Timothy not to get himself killed taking on the bad guy. I had his speech all thought out in my mind: "Fine. Fine! But if you think I'm going to stick around and watch you die, you can just keep thinking." Then he'd stomp out the door and not show up again until later on that night when he would try one desperate last time to change Timothy's mind.
That's what I expected to happen. But when I got to that point, Rocket did something else. He tossed aside ethical considerations and attractive melodrama, and instead brought the full power of his "What I say is true" supernatural ability to bear on Timothy, forcing him instantaneously to teleport them both the hell away from the bad guy. Then, to prevent him simply teleporting back once his magical influence had faded, he punched him out. And then a dragon nearly fried them both to a crisp, because, being given no time or free will to choose one location over another, Timothy had teleported them to somewhere that didn't actually exist. Or, rather, that existed in the same way that I think Timothy and Rocket exist. Which is to say, it was fictional. And the dragon was the one which Beowulf was going to kill himself slaying shortly afterward.
I was watching the New Orleans Saints pound the crap out of the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, and sitting next to a good friend who was doing her thesis on Beowulf. These circumstances may have influenced the punching-out part and the dragon part. Hard to say.
So that's part of the fun: being surprised by your characters. But later that evening I was surprised by another sort of writer enjoyment: realizing that my own half-written novel was living in my head the way a published novel does. You know that feeling? You get halfway through reading that book, you have to set it aside so you can get to work on time or whatever, and the story stays in your head, niggling at you: What happens next? You can't wait to get home, to read the next page, to be in the company of the characters you've been following...
Well, I was feeling that way about my novel yesterday. Even after I reached 30,000--ten thousand words in a weekend! go me!--and I was taking a well-deserved break with Puzzle Pirates and blogs, that niggling thing was happening. The part of my brain that gets addicted to experiences easily--the part that imagines me playing more Puzzle Pirates when I ought to be writing--that part of my brain was imagining the story even while I was trying to take a break from writing it.
The scene I'd stopped in the middle of, not knowing what comes next? It kept resurfacing in the back of my addled little brain. I wanted to know what happened next. And it wasn't that I wanted to figure out what happened next, being the writer and all. I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next, like a reader.
And that's cool. Cool and fun.
Which is all I really wanted to say today.
Day 11: Writing The Boring Stuff
- 18,688 wds. long
If the author is bored, the reader is quite definitely going to be bored too. However, sometimes you still gotta write the boring stuff. Maybe on revision it will become un-boring.
I haven't gotten to the really emotionally attached wincing with embarrassment stuff yet. I have to get through my MC's first date, first. And this is not a subject that intrinsically interests me. It's newcomer plot fodder, stuff that got added recently in order to make this story plausible as a Really Truly novel. The story that's been in my head for some 15 years now has mainly been about how the MC inherits her mother's supernatural nature, forces her way out from under her oppressive foster mother's thumb, and learns about her heritage. But in trying to redeem that plot from being a transparent case of angsty teenage wish-fulfillment into being a novel someone other than myself might actually want to read, the original characters have begun acquiring complexities (e.g. the foster mother isn't repressive at all; she's just very detached, and she knows some scary things that the MC doesn't know), and the plot has begun accruing secondary characters. Such as the MC's boyfriend.
And I'm just not really interested in this guy. Scenes with him seem to serve no other purpose than to give the movement time to crescendo (and give me a better chance of hitting the target word count). So I slog my way through those scenes, taking dictation as I watch them hold hands over the red-and-white checked table-vinyl at a second-rate pizzeria in Slidell, and I get bored, and I wonder why I should care.
We'll get there, never fear. We really are getting there. I'm finding new ways every day to tie him into my original conception of how the plot should work, so that his relationship with the MC plays a part in the process of her transformation. For instance, he asks her out only after she trusts him enough to say, "OK, you're going to think I'm crazy, but 1) I haven't managed to outgrow my imaginary friend, and 2) this imaginary friend has started making passes at me, and 3) I'm beginning to wonder whether he's all that imaginary after all." That seems to work on several levels. He genuinely cares for her, and wants to be there for her when she's distressed. And her leap of faith in trusting him with this convinces him that A) she deserves a leap of faith from him in return, and B) she's not going to laugh in his face after relying on him not to laugh at her. But then, for all that he cares about her, he does think she's a little mentally disturbed, and he thinks that it would be healthier for her to have a boyfriend than to have (in his view) externalized all those normal adolescent hormonal developments into an imaginary construct that sexually harasses her.
So... the boyfriend is a loving, caring, trusting and trustworthy person who also is a little patronizing and for-her-own-good manipulative. Which, I think, is realistically complex, and sets up the possibility for a scene where this ulterior motive comes out in the open and causes them to have a bit of a fight. Which tension will in turn be a plausible reason for the crux in the plot between the MC and her not-so-imaginary friend.
Also, the MC's eventual transformation will have a decided impact on the boyfriend. And the outcome of that will shape how the MC relates to her newfound powers. So everything gets worked into the network of causal relationships that push the story forward. It's all good, at least potentially so, and none of it ought to boring.
But it just isn't the stuff I've been looking forward to writing, that's all. It's the writing that's actual work, as opposed to the writing that comes springing fully formed and armed for battle out of the Muse's forehead. Of course, the latter sort of writing is a lot rarer than many people think, so where I get off complaining that I'm bored with the former sort of writing, I have no idea. But it's my blog, so I can complain if I want to. Nyah.
Anyway, that's my so-called insight for today. Take it or leave it.
(If I sound grumpy, blame the NFL. Today's game between the Rams and the Saints was painful.)
Day 10: Avoiding the "Well, Duh" Reaction
- 16,811 wds. long
There is an art to withholding information from characters and readers. There's a line beyond which lies the hell of Authorial Contrivance and the "Well, Duh!" reaction. We want to stay on the correct side of that line.
It's only natural that the author knows more than the characters and the reader. The author knows the whole story as one complete thing, whereas the reader is being told the story bit by bit and the characters are living it as it unfurls. But after that things get a little hairy. Some things the characters know but the reader doesn't. Some things the reader knows but the characters don't. Some characters know more than others about certain things.
And eventually everyone discovers stuff. Managing that discovery convincingly is an art.
So here's the thing. The main character's mother was, for all intents and purposes, a supernatural being. She wielded some remarkable powers which were as capable of causing tragedy as triumph. Our main character knows nothing of this, and the woman raising her--who was very close to the MC's mother but won't tell the MC for fear of the MC asking questions--would like to keep it that way. But at the same time, she is scared witless that the main character will inherit both those powers and the related tragedies. In today's scene, these conflicting goals (to keep the MC in the dark, but to forewarn the MC against catastrophe) cause the tension to escalate for both characters. The MC just wants to borrow the car and go on a date; her guardian is scared of the entire idea of the MC experiencing sexystuffs because the MC's mother had a way of causing fatalities when her emotions got out of control.
And here I am knowing everything about it and hating the conversation I'm writing because everything seems far too obvious. "Jeez, I'm writing an MC with an INT roll of 6! Surely she should be able to see through her guardian's lies about the extent to which she knew the MC's mother. Surely she should be able to figure out what her guardian's worried about? And surely any reader can see through what's up with that whole not-so-imaginary friend business, what with the NSIF going on about 'I knew her before.' I mean, well, duh!"
These sorts of insecurities will probably only be assuaged by the reactions of a beta reader. And beta readers aren't getting a hold of this in November, let me tell you. They may never. (You'll notice there's still no excerpt posted at my NaNoWriMo Profile.)
If the above sounds kind of cryptic, it's meant to be. I'm still not ready to get very specific here. I'm mainly just whining. (See? This post falls under the Whining category.) I am not likely to get less cryptic tomorrow, either. The stuff I'm really shy about letting anyone read is coming up in the next few scenes. But it will then be followed by several months (in story time) of the (relatively) boring time-passing stuff that I never bothered thinking about before (because it wasn't emotionally compelling to a daydreaming high-schooler). That might be safe to share. It might even be less boring than I fear. We'll have to see.
...annnnnnd All Caught Up Again!
- 15,103 wds. long
Not likely to fall behind tomorrow, either. Will be at the Tea Spot from noon until five. Noon until two is designated for writing, and I can't see why I wouldn't.
You know what I found out today? My main character's brand-new boyfriend (that was a new discovery last month, that she has a boyfriend) has got an elderly relative he refers to as Aunt Widget.
The story all takes place in the New Orleans area. The boyfriend is actually at his grandmother's place in Pearl River. Large southern families get nicknames. They do. Gods know that in my southern family, more people in it have silly nicknames than don't. Some bestowed by parents. Some by siblings. Some by very small children who hadn't got that pronunciation thing down yet. Some by the merciless affection of neighborhood friends (to this day, all the used-ta-been kids from my old block call me "Nooba." Sometimes "Nooba-cheese." I'm not entirely sure why, to tell you the truth). And then there's the collection of family codewords for ordinary objects, and individual phrases as simple as "Oh, apricots!" (I think Mom would have to tell you that one, I'd only get the details wrong) that will reduce the whole holiday gathering to tears of laughter because they all know exactly what hilarious exploit that refers to.
And then there's the way outsiders and former outsiders react to all this chaos. My husband has a southern family, too, but it's not nearly so large, and his left eyebrow got a workout the first time he met all my relatives. I mean, what with him always turning towards me and raising it sardonically while repeating, sardonically, the name he just heard. And being from Houston didn't somehow prepare him for me shopping at (R. I. P.) Schweggmann's. "OK, one more thing on my list," I said, "what was it now?"
"Oh," he says, "the muck-muck."
I looked at him blankly for a moment, then realized. "That's chow-chow, you dingbat!"
Right. Because "chow-chow" is a perfectly normal name for a mustard-based condiment. (Which Zatarain's no longer makes, I am deeply distressed to report. Apparently someone is selling jars of the stuff on Underbid. Soon as I get home on my own encrypted signal, and as soon as I figure out whether anyone's selling the stuff for cheaper, I'm placing a goddamned order, damnit!)
Which--to make a long story short ("Too late!" -entire cast of Clue)--is what sort of stuff I was drawing on when my characters had the following conversation:
"Sorry, my Aunt Widget just walked in. Wanna tell her Merry Christmas?"
"MERRY CHRISTMAS AUNT GIZMO!"
(in the distance) "What? Who you talking to? Get off the phone and come have dinner."
"OK. Gotta go."
"Tell your Aunt Thingamabob bon apetit for me."
I feel like it's trying to turn into a chapter from Good Omens. "Fine old Lancashire name, Device! Nothing wrong with it at all! Are you laughing? Stop laughing!" But, y'know, nothing wrong with that. At all.
Day 4: Still On Schedule / Ditching the Mary Sue phobia
- 6,849 wds. long
Hello. Back for more, as promised. Also, the Saints totally did kick the Jaguars' collective butts. It was brilliantly played. How about that onside kick, eh? "No, really, a field goal is nice, but we really wanted a touchdown. So... we're not gonna give you the ball just yet." And I'm all like, "Is that even legal?" because I'm not really knowledgeable about football at all, I just like watching my team win.
Anyway. One football game and 1667 words later...
So after digging up the "Namarie Sue" Making Light blog post to link to yesterday, I started reading it (and much of what it linked to) afresh. And part of the ensuing conversation rang very true, especially considering it mentions NaNoWriMo:
Mitch Wagner: "As a reader and wannabe fiction writer myself, I hate to think of up-and-coming writers who might be scared off of writing idealized versions of themselves because they're afraid of committing Mary Sue."
Kass Fireborn: Unfortunately, I gather it's so: Writing the Non-Mary-Sue Female Protagonist [now-defunct link to old NaNoWriMo forum topic]. There are five pages there discussing the problem of, well, writing the Non-Mary-Sue female protagonist, and that's just one of the threads which bring the concern up--and these days, NaNoWriMo is a broad enough cross-spectrum of future writers so you can figure if it's got that much of a discussion there, it's a problem elsewhere, as well. [...] So what you get, basically, is an effect on two kinds of people. One group contains people who, yes, might have written a Mary Sue if they hadn't seen this sort of thing, and went back and rethought their characters and as a result got something with better depth. The other group is full of people who wouldn't have written a Mary Sue--but they think they could have. They also think of not for grammar guides they'd have misused a semicolon, and if not for a class on plot structure they'd have had a novel that went nowhere. And so they go back and rethink their characters too, and start carefully sanding away certain bits of them, because they'd hate to give offense or do something as horrible as writing a Mary Sue. [...] If this sanding gets taken to extremes, what they end up with is, I suppose, a sort of anti-Mary Sue--a character so unremarkable you can't care about her at all.That is me all over. I'm sitting here so totally worried about the Sue-ishness of my main character that I'm, well, not so much sanding off her interesting bits as much as being made practically too paranoid to write her story at all.
I think the thing to remember here is, once again, rough draft. What you end up with on December 1 is a huge amount of total rough draft. Rough draft is supposed to be flawed. No one writes it perfectly on the first try--well, maybe some people do, but their example is not useful to us mere mortals. Our rough drafts get better as we continue practicing our craft, but then so do our revision skills, and our standards rise too. So we don't so much aspire to write publishable rough draft as we aspire to have better stories at the end of the writing-revising-polishing process.
As it is, the conclusions people came to on that Making Light comment thread can be summarized as follows: You can have author-insertion that isn't a Mary Sue. You can have admirable characters that aren't Mary Sues. Mary Sue is, quite simply, bad writing. If your wish-fulfillment story is well-written and its main character is well-rounded, it's not going to be a Mary Sue.
Also: A Mary Sue is the character that you're told to like. Because the author says so. For no other reason. Which condemnation says nothing at all about those characters that you come to like because they're genuinely likable.
Also: A pre-emptive remedy for Mary Sue-itis might be, "OK, so you have God-like powers. Now what?"
Also: Read the whole thread. It's good for you.
On a nearly unrelated note, Kass's mention of NaNoWriMo came about because several people upthread were outing themselves as NaNoWriMo participants: "It's rapidly becoming impossible to encounter a fairly large body of prospective writers without tripping over at least one WriMo." And this was 2003. There's even more more of us now. That we Nano'ers are considered a significant portion of the future write population, and that we can gab with pro writers who don't look down at us for choosing this method to produce our rough drafts, is a fine fine thing.