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.
A Couple Of Quick Observations
- 28,235 wds. long
First: When your main character is reluctant to do a certain necessary thing--like, say, confront the parents of the missing children in hopes of alleviating their suspicions--it helps mightily to give her more than one reason to do it. It's a good idea to get in their good graces, because they're the force behind the neighborhood distrust that keeps her business in the red. It's a great idea because they not only have influence in the neighborhood but they also have the police officer's ear; if they suspect her, he'll suspect her, which will make him less inclined to protect her from knife-wielding thugs. And it's a FANTASTIC idea because she knows she's supposed to think one of them hired the thug that's threatening her life. The last thing she needs is for the Evil Corporation Guy who hired the thug to realize that there's a cuckoo in his nest (the security guard that's in both their pay) feeding her vital information, like, "This actually has nothing to do with missing children. It's to do with property take-overs. Pretend you don't know that."
"Oh, God," she thinks, "I really am going to have to call these people! And talk to them! And make nice with them even though they are trying to run me out of business and quite possibly abused the children that I'm quite certain ran the hell away from home! I have to treat these people like they're human beings who have authority over me. Shit!"
Second: Nothing says "interesting stage directions" during a wee-hours-of-the-morning conversation between the protagonist and her de facto bodyguard like sexual tension! Yay! She's, so, hot-for-him, she's, so, hot-for-him... Bwahahahaha!
Poor Gwen. She's all nervous about having maybe been too forward and stuff. She doesn't know that by the second book she'll end up married to him. I know just how she feels. Well, aside from all the threats to her life, safety, and livelihood, and whatnot.
Two New Characters Whose Names Start With "T"
- 15,685 wds. long
First off, I promise not to go all anal with this Celtic Knot thing. I'm just having fun doodling, is all.
So. Meet Tess Helen Holland. Tess is the spiral in red. Tess is a middle school girl who likes books (especially those by Gwen Halpburn) and doesn't like boys (much) or sports (at all). Tess is the one who shows up at The Bookwyrm's Hoard and notices the quill is missing. She helps Gwen look for it. They don't find it, but during that time it becomes obvious that the bookstore is a good place for this little mousy misfit. Tess blossoms, sheds her self-consciousness, and even mouths off a little as she and her idol take apart old Mrs. Nimbel's desk in search of the writing implement. Gwen is inspired to keep the bookstore open for the girl's sake if not for her own.
Next, meet Tim Smith. He's the loop in green. When Gwen calls around looking for a security company who can spare guard personnel, like, now, he's the one who shows up. Thing is, after he sees Gwen safe home from the bookstore, he goes directly onto the graveyard shift at the office of a certain corporation which wants the bookstore property and doesn't think twice about using dirty tricks to get it. That's why Tim's loop crosses itself. He's crossing his own interests to take this job. Only he doesn't know it yet.
I might play further with the doodle if I get stuck, see what kind of neat repeating patterns these new lines might cause; they'll make interesting new intersections that might suggest future scenes. But right now I have plenty to work with for several days to come, just with these new characters and all their hangers-on. So for now I'll put away the colored pens and instead open up a paintbox full of words....
- 58,387 wds. long
- 117.75 hrs. revised
Still slogging along with the mother-son phone call. Stupid phone call. Amtrak's City of New Orleans is just getting into Chicago. It's running an hour late because we have a freight train crawling along ahead of us. Stupid freight train. The two girls behind me are having a conversation that alternates between teenage-style boy gossip and five-year-old-style whining about what a waste of time this trip is and how they'll never take the train again and they want their money back. Stupid whiny boy-crazy girls.
Will have about a four-hour layover at Union Station before catching the California Zephyr for Denver at 1:50 PM. Will probably find some wi-fi there to post this, after finding links to spruce things up with. Meanwhile I'm meeting an old friend for lunch at the Corner Bakery. That means I probably won't be hoofing it to the public library, since that's about a mile and a half in the opposite direction. It's to the southwest of Union Station, I think; the Corner Bakery is to the northeast. That's OK. I like seeing a different bit of Chicago each time I come through.
Once on the westbound train, I shall continue the slog. Wish me luck.
P.S. The attached picture is the part of Chicago's Union Station that actually looks like a train station ought. You have to come in from the correct entrance to see it, though. Either end of the Canal Street side of the building will do; the central entrance, though, will send you right down into the bit that resembles a modern airport and is therefore boring.
P.P.S. Did not manage to find myself wi-fi in Chicago. Just lots of pay-per-use wi-fi: tmobile courtesy of Starbucks, and SurfAndSip courtesy of Cosi. Stupid pay-per-use wi-fi. This post will have to wait until Denver and get backdated accordingly.
The Making Of A Monster, Redux
- 57,923 wds. long
- 116.00 hrs. revised
If fictional people were as psychotic as real people, readers would refuse to believe in them. At the very least, their psychoses have to make some sort of sense before they look like more than contrived conveniences for the sake of the plot. Thus, having Mrs. Windlow refer to Amy as "Mike's widow" when Amy has clearly engaged herself to Brian is just a wee little bit over the top. For all that Mrs. Windlow might actually have say this sort of thing as a real live person, as a fictional character she looks cartoonish saying it.
Cartoonish. Like little Lisa Rental in Sheep In The Big City, convinced that Sheep is a "doggie." Or the appallingly two-dimensional villain in Dean Koontz's From The Corner Of His Eye, convinced on the flimsiest of evidence that his female victims are actually in love with him. Delusions on that scale do happen in real life, but in fiction, in general, they're amusing at best and annoying at worst. They're rarely done well enough to be taken seriously. They scream "plot device" and "author's excuse." They don't inspire the creepishness that Koontz probably wanted and that Mo Willems probably couldn't care less about. (Lisa Rental is supposed to be both amusing and annoying. Koontz's villain probably wasn't.)
Now, having Mrs. Windlow aware of Amy's stated devotions but convinced that they're just little white lies meant to disguise pity for the pathetic baby brother--that's more plausible. A sane person might actually come to that conclusion, too. Except a sane person would dismiss that conclusion the first time he saw Amy and Brian together, whereas a psychotic person prone to seeing ulterior motives would dismiss exactly the evidence that would cause a sane person to dismiss the evidence for the ulterior motive.
Wait. That was convoluted and made no sense. What I mean is, there are enough red herrings in the characters' back story that Mrs. Windlow's opinion would make sense to a third party, if that third party didn't actually know Amy and Brian and had instead only heard Mrs. Windlow talk about them. She's being choosy about the evidence presented her; she's not making evidence up of thin air.
That may have made more sense.
People are subtle. They get broken, and their broken bits express themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. If you go far enough back with an omniscient enough eye, you can find the decision point at which the broken person, through his or her particular psychosis, began the spiral into paranoia and unreal expectations. And that decision point makes sense. And it provides that single premise that leads the broken person to come to a lifetime of mistaken conclusions: "All women are evil," maybe, or "my younger son never does anything without meaning me harm." There's always that one point in time where the choice seem reasonable, where the thought processes seem inevitable, and after which everything is chaos.
Pretty scary, if you think about it. Are you at one of those decision points now? Am I?
The Making Of A Monster
- 57,772 wds. long
- 115.00 hrs. revised
...is darn difficult.
Remember all that crap about the banality of evil? Human villains that aren't actually evil, per se, but aren't acting out of any sort of good intent for anyone but themselves? Useful stuff. Damn useful stuff. But still... I'm having trouble.
Rewriting the conversation between Brian Windlow and his mother. *shudder*
The previous version, which I thought was pretty good at the time, is a ham-handed mess. On the one hand, Brian's half of the convo isn't so bad. He reacts the way you'd probably expect, given the crap she's throwing at him. But the crap she's throwing at him isn't consistent with the philosophy that "No one wakes up in the morning, cracks their knuckles, rubs their hands together, and says, 'What eeeeevil shall I perpetrate today? Mwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!'" Well, it isn't.
So. Reevaluating how the evil got perpetrated now. Reevaluating, y'know, motives. Why is she such an unmitigated bitch to this poor boy? Is she convinced that everything he does is with her disadvantage in mind? Does she therefore view everything he does with suspicion, as a possible plot against her? Does she resent that he lived while her favorite son died? (Yes, yes, and yes.) And how the hell did she get this way? Most people don't start out with such a default distrust of their fellow humans. How bad, exactly, was that divorce, and why did her relationship with Brian get so saddled with it?
(And exactly how much remembered abuse is she actually guilty of, that Brian is now ambiguously traumatized by?)
I keep suspecting I've bitten off more than I can chew. There's a sort of highwire tension line between these two characters, and if I teeter off it even a little bit I plunge this portion of the novel into irredeemable hokeyness. Which is bad. Which is also a terribly strained metaphor, but, y'know. It's a blog. I'm allowed.
Anyway, that's about where I am at the moment. Now I'd better clear out of here--I can tell you with certainty that the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company on Vets in Metairie (er. there are two. I'm at the one by the end of the parade route, near Oaklawn) has very decent wi-fi (unlike Puccino's, where I couldn't even connect, not once, and where there are signs telling students on no uncertain terms that they may not study there), but on a parade night they're pretty darn busy, and I bet they'll appreciate my freeing up a table.
Once More Marches Forth My Army Of Words
At upper left (upper left in the current style sheet, anyway; I reserve the right to change it at any time, so there) you will find two manuscripts. One is a novel. One is a short story. You will probably not need to be told which is which, even if you haven't been reading along all this time. The word counts will be dead giveaways.
About the novel: There are things which Diane probably shouldn't know as early as Chapter Two. Today's session was mostly spent figuring out which things those were, and what other things to replace them with. Some of said figuring out took place over a plate of bacon and eggs, because I felt like it.
About the short story: I and a veritable bouquet of postage stamps in various denominations have sent it out into the word again. My next assignment, in case the story should come back unbought, is to make up a list of four other editorial desks/slush piles it should visit, and be prepared to ship it off to the next one right away. And, should this exercise result in nothing more victorious than five rejection letters from five professional markets, I need to decide on a second tier list, because that's how this game is played.
May every week end as productively as this one.
I Am So Relieved.
- 51,373 wds. long
- 14.00 hrs. revised
On Predicting The Future
- 50,722 wds. long
- 9.50 hrs. revised
Yes, first time hitting the novel since the wee hours of Friday night. What do I have to say for myself? Thththbbbp. "Thththbbbp" is what I've got to say for myself. What are you going to do about it, that's what I'd like to know. You don't feel you could love me but....
Today's task: Rewrite the first real scene of the novel, in which Diane skips school, runs into Babba, and gets given the talisman. You know? It's kind of fun. I feel like I'm actually getting to make them real characters now. First draft, the arcs of the various characters' developments weren't exactly in place. All I had were echoes from their future possible perfections ringie-dinging around on the page. I get to listen for those echoes now and try to justify them. So Diane is a lot more surly in this first scene and a lot less ambivalent about hanging around with Mitch. She's irritated and she's dying for a smoke. And Babba actually has more of a consistent voice, too. I actually know who she is and where she's been this time around. In 1802, for example, she was in Tattingstone.
So I'm not done with that scene, not hardly nearly yet, but I have Other Things need working on tonight if I'm going to stay on a schedule that'll keep me from pulling some miserable all-nighters this weekend. Hurray for being on schedule!
Meanwhile, here. Have a link. Therein you'll find Miss Snark, the literary agent, addressing the question, "When should I just give up on this whole writing thing?"
When you're standing at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter is busy discussing his novel with Miss Snark.Damn good answer. Look, we all know that there are some of us out there who will never make it. Ninety-something percent of everything is crap, and eighty-someodd percent of those producing said crap will never produce anything more than crap.
Some like to harp on this fact more than others. You'll find them on writing-related forums all over the Internet. They can often be heard pointing out signs by which one will know that one is destined to be a life-long crap producer. "Look, real writers write because they have to. If that doesn't describe you, no amount of X Words Per Day tricks will make you a writer." "If you find it so hard, maybe you ought to be doing something else." I can only presume that such doomsayers are themselves struggling or even published writers who feel threatened by the army of would-be writers hurling themselves bodily from catapults at the great stone wall standing between would-be and did-become. The doomsayers must want to discourage them from continuing the assault, out of fear that they might become competition. "Look, just stop. You'll never be a writer. Go do something easier, like law school."
And the doomsayers can just bloody well shut up, right? Because yes some would-be writers will never reach the land of did-become. Some will never get published. Some will never even finish a single story.
But you know what? It ain't our place to say who that'll be.
It's said that where there's life, there's hope. That goes for just about anything you might want to aim your life at. No amount of crap you produce today, fellow writer, can indicate for sure that you won't start spinning straw into gold tomorrow. Or the tomorrow after that. Or in thirty years. The only way to succeed is to keep trying, and the only positive indication of utter failure is to stop trying.
And even then, you might start trying again next week.
So fie upon doomsayers. You'll give up when you're dead. Until then, for as long as you love it, keep writing.
I May Have Exaggerated.
- 50,439 wds. long
- 8.50 hrs. revised
Well, maybe not Hell. Maybe just a little bit of Purgatory. And not so much "breaking loose" as "sidling over surreptitiously and hanging about all evening."
All I got done tonight was rewriting the the rewriting of the very first scene, the opening piece of the framing device in which Grandma Lenner announces that she's going to tell a story. In which all the cousins and one of the parents is introduced. In which all sorts of statements about age and who's whose kid are made, using numbers and names I grabbed out of the air on November 1, 2004.
I do believe I spent forty-five minutes just hammering out a family tree.
How old each person is now... how old each of Diane's daughters were when their father died... how old they were at the time of each grandchild's birth... an explanation of each daughter's love life and why one of them apparently had her first child at age sixteen...
That's a bunch of math. And not the easy sort of math, like checkbooks and restaurant tips. No. The hard sort of math where you have to keep about eight or ten random numbers floating around in your head at all times.
And then there's family tree issues of the rough draft variety, such as why the heck I had two children named Bryne listening to Grandma's story, and whose child she was, and whether Grandma's daughter Sherri actually existed or ought to be conflated with the middle daughter, skeptic Giselle.
And why the hell so many characters in this book have names that start with "D."
My head hurts. I'm going to bed now.
On The Banality Of Evil
- 50,304 wds. long
- 4.00 hrs. revised
It probably says something unflattering about me that one of my passtimes is reading ancient USENET flame wars. I can say that thus far I have not actually given in to temptation and posted responses to five-year-old posts. But it's been a near thing.
[Begin anecdote] ##Trust me, this is going somewhere.
There was this post at the AbsoluteWrite.com forums which I can't seem to find anymore, sorry, but it linked to this thread here. (Don't click the link! It will eat your soul!) The "discussion" has an all star cast and one very clueless, rude would-be author suffering from Golden Word syndrome. (Don't be tempted!) It probably wouldn't have been nearly as long a thread as it became were it not for a spectacularly stunning exchange between the would-be author and one of the shining stars in that all-star cast. She gave his awful novel excerpt a detailed critique, lovely in its thoroughness and more generous than he deserved. He dismissed it as petty. She said she was therefore puzzled as to what he expected in a critique. His response? "If you've ever written a real book... you'd know. :)"
(Yes, that was a smiley on the end there. As in, "I've just been breathtakingly rude but don't take offense because I tacked a smiley onto the end of it!")
They say that on the Internet no one can hear you scream, but even over that distance of five years I could hear the distinct sound of a convention full of authors' and editors' jaws dropping.
(But really, don't read it! There but for your forebearance will go weeks of your productive life!)
So shortly after that happened, another star in that cast picked up the gauntlet and began a new thread in which he gave this would-be author's excerpt an even more detailed page-by-page critique. For which everyone else in the thread was grateful, except of course for the one person who had been specifically asked to killfile it. He didn't, so there was more juicy flamage, With The Result That...
##Told you this was going somewhere!
...he found himself used as the example in a fascinating discussion about the banality of evil.
While reading Gene's latest excesses, with increasing horror, I also noted quietly that this is an interesting way to introduce a villain into a trusting community. The back of my head considered that, as there aren't many vicious pathological liars around in most people's lives, thanks be, I may be reading other people's versions of Gene Steinberg as Dark Lord for years to come.Because that's what writers do. Unpleasant experiences become grist for the mill. Never meddle in the affairs of wordsmiths, for you are entertaining and model well as fictional evil.
The discussion that followed held examples of real live evil, which is rarely as flashy as Darth Vador or flamboyant as The Joker. Real pathological evil is hard to recognize, because most of us tell ourselves it doesn't exist, certainly not in our circle of friends. Pathologically evil people take advantage of our tendency to assume motives of goodwill in all. How many times have I myself quoted the Author's Creed For Creating Three-Dimensional Antagonists: "No one is the villain in their autobiography"?
It's true. I cling to my faith that the Creed is true. However, do not underestimate an antagonist's ability to reframe their villainy in their internal narrative. In real life, it isn't always helpful to tell yourself that they just want the best for everyone and are misguided as to what the best is. They may actually want the worst for you--but are convinced that desiring the worst for you is reasonable.
Not going to go into details about it, not going to name names, but... my husband and I are recently on the rebound from someone who fits the description. And the sad thing is, that someone probably has legitimate historical reasons for being broken in her particular ways. But she absolutely did not want the best for anyone; she merely was convinced that some of us were evil and out to get her and needed to be destroyed. Once you finally realize--and it can take a long time to realize--that this person expects her friends to make her the center of their lives, prioritized higher than preexisting friendships, than family, than marriage; and that her more obnoxious behavior, far from being unconscious, comprises active attempts to break up those preexisting relationships by which she feels threatened; that wrecks every pattern you have for interaction. You can no longer assume goodwill as a motive. You can no longer take for granted a beneficient common ground.
The point here is not "poor pitiful me, I have seen Evil." The point here is, realistic evil--or a damn good facsimile thereof--comes in all different flavors. A villain needn't be a misguided philanthropist or a self-described benevolent dictator to be three-dimensional. Sometimes the villain has an unjustified persecution complex, or an overdeveloped sense of vigilante-ism. And whatever the flavor, it's valuable to recognize a villain when it shows up in your life. Not just because you're better off wasting less time and energy on people like that (really; the self-defense mechanisms by which we manage them in our lives can be actively bad for the soul), but also because once you recognize it, you, for certain writerly values of the word "you," can use it.
'Cause when you're a writer, and you find yourself losing at the games of life, that's your consolation prize.
So I've got bad guys in The Golden Bridle. I've got a high school clique leader who's downright nasty. I've got the protagonist's boyfriend who uses the protagonist in all the worst ways. I've even got the protagonist herself, who starts off the novel in her guise as Bad-Ass Cool Chick, a guise she's build out of self-defense over the years. None of these people are motivated by wanting the best for everyone. They want the best for themselves, and they treat others poorly, and they rationalize their poor treatment of others as being the only way to give themselves the best, which of course they're convinced they deserve.
And when I stopped to think about it, I realize that many of the examples raised in the USENET thread I'm linking you to here, as well as the example I mention from my own life, they've got threads of behavior and rationalization that make sense in the context of my bad guys. And I thought, damn. These people are so right.
So I'm passing on the link as a public service to writers everywhere. Enjoy.
But don't, for the love of the Gods, read that first thread. Or, if you do, limit yourself to the "Cooking for Writers Who Forget To Eat" subthread. Recipes are very cool. And the posts where people invent whole fictional accountings for the rude would-be writer's mental state, that's kind of interesting and heart-warming. And--
Look, it's not worth it!