Tag Archives: characters

Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.

 

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What is your deepest fear?

Dark Demon by ChrisCold

Writers deal with fear everyday. We fear success.  We fear failure.  We fear submitting our work to strangers. We fear hearing from those same strangers after submission. We fear the blank page.  We fear our own humanity and that we are inadequate to the task of writing and telling a story others will want to read and enjoy. Have I about covered it? Do you have a fear that’s different?

Fear is a tough thing to fight because it’s tenacious.  Just when I think I’ve gotten the better of it, it sneaks up and grabs my throat, sending my stomach into a tailspin, and sending me back into the darkness.  I’ve been one of those people envious of people who can be fearless. Either they fear nothing or they hide the fear very well. And I suspect they have a totally different perspective on the world.

When afraid, the human body goes into a flight or fight mode and certain hormones are released to help us deal with the danger. Those hormones can be damaging to our bodies if released all the time. So being fearful for long periods of time is not only bad for the psyche, but also bad for the body. Years ago, I used to meditate every day for at least half an hour. It worked wonders. I don’t remember now how I got out of that habit. Then several years ago, I began practicing Falun gong, a movement meditation from China based in Buddhism. I loved this practice.  I always felt so centered and strong after it. I got into the habit of doing this practice every day for 30-40 minutes (the first 4 movements), and I felt great. Then I had to have surgery and I stopped the Falun gong.

Falun Gong Exercises

Recently, I’ve been trying to return to Falun gong as well as adding a yoga practice to help with improving balance and strength. I’ve run into the same problem with this wonderful plan that I have with writing — I leave the house at 6:50 every morning during the week and return between 6 and 6:30 at night.  In order to get at least 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep, I’m in bed by 8:30 every night to get up at 4:30 the next morning and start all over again. I’ve been trying to fit writing into this schedule with little success. There’s just not enough free time. I’m now thinking of taking some writing to work with me and working on it over my lunch hour.

Feeling centered and strong physically can really help in fighting fear. But it doesn’t really address the cause of the fear. That’s usually in the mind. Maybe a writer has been told over and over as a child that he doesn’t have the smarts for intellectual pursuits, and writing falls into that category for him. Or she’s been told that her purpose in life is to marry and produce children, to exist for the benefit of those children and the man she married. Going outside of expectations creates fear in the mind.  Low self-esteem can also produce fear in the mind — I’ve struggled with this one myself for years.  Isn’t it sad when parents cannot celebrate their child’s uniqueness, her intelligence, imagination, and artistic abilities? My parents’ reaction to my artistic pursuits was “Can’t, can’t, can’t.”

Anger can be an effective counter to fear. That’s how I was able to pursue music and writing in spite of my parents’ messages and expectations for me. I still did not enjoy any support from them for what I was doing or what I accomplished. I realize now that most of my fear comes from them — the fear that they passed onto me when I was too young to understand and internalized it. Knowing this, understanding my own mind’s fearfulness helped me not only to play music in college and then to write, but to be able to understand a fictional character’s fears and where they might originate.

It’s worth it to figure out where your fears originate. They won’t just go away if you choose to ignore them or to develop tricks to get around them. But I want to end with a quote I read recently from Marianne Williams, author of A Return to Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

 

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

Getting Started…again…and again….

“Aanora’s eyes”

The last two weeks or so have been full of life concerns and chores so I haven’t had much time to work on fiction. No, that’s not correct.  I didn’t have much time to sit at my computer and put words on screen, but I was actually working a lot on the Aanora story. That is, thinking about various scenes, asking my imagination lots of questions, and getting a handle on plot points. I’m starting to get a sense of its length, too, and it could end up novella length.  Which is fine.  I’ve not written a novella before.  Always a first time.

What niggled and nagged at me the last two weeks was the beginning. How to start? I have fairly stable scenes down that are in the middle and at the end.  I know now that the story doesn’t begin with Aanora, but with a set of characters at a diplomatic conference. It took me two weeks to get that far.  Yesterday, I decided to devote the afternoon to the beginning with the hope that I’d be able to get something down on screen.  I scrapped what I originally wrote and the first revision and started over. Then I closed my eyes to put myself in the meeting chamber where delegations from 25 planets were enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres at a reception.

Who are the sentient beings attending this conference? Do I need to name and describe each one? Ugh. I don’t think that’s needed. But I do need to name and describe the two parties who collide into a dispute. And then the human delegation that gets pulled into the dispute, challenged to find Aanora. They’ve never heard of Aanora, but understand from what the disputing parties tell them that she is the only mediator they will both accept. I realized that the leader of the human delegation (the main character) feels deeply insecure about his diplomatic skills and would like to find a mentor who can help him. And then there is this other niggling in my mind: one of the disputing parties is not known for accepting mediation.  They are known for taking what they want and leaving. So right away, I have the feeling that something is not right.

Where I write

Tension.  A great thing to have at the beginning of a story.  That sense of not knowing what’s going to happen, wondering what’s going on, what’s going to happen next. I was quite heartened with what I ended up with yesterday. I feel much more secure with this beginning than the others I’d written. It may be rewritten or edited in the future, but I now have my starting point for the story.

Another result of my thinking: getting to know the main character better. He’s a physical person, someone who prefers to act rather than think. He operates a lot on instinct, but isn’t good at reading people. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in this story, if he’s truly open to learning, and if he can figure out what’s going on.  I already know when and how he meets Aanora.  I hope I’ll have more time next weekend for work on the story at the computer!

 

Writing Update

To be honest, I was thinking of skipping writing a post here this week in order to work more on “Aanora” today, but then I decided to write a short update on where I am with all my writing now that I’ve become accustomed to my fulltime work schedule during the week. Actual writing at the computer (or handwritten) occurs on the weekends. Thinking and imagining occurs all the time, even when I’m at the day job. During this past week, my printer at home began sending me error messages that the ink pads were almost full which for my particular model apparently means that I need a new printer. Too bad.  I love this printer. It has served me well for the last four years. So this means that until I get the new printer, I won’t be printing out much of what I’m writing.  I usually print out a draft and do revision work by hand rather than on the computer. This could also be a motivation to hurry up and buy the new printer.

“Light the Way,” the sci fi short story whose first draft I finally finished this summer is still fermenting. I think I printed out the first draft at the time I finished it, so I could do some revision work if I get stalled on the “Aanora” story.

Clipped a nice story from the newspaper this morning about Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the settings in Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the Perceval series. I’ve discovered that Google Maps can be especially helpful in researching locations also. I’m almost to the point with this novel where I no longer feel daunted by it. Revision work could start at any time.

What has been preoccupying my mind (and imagination) though is the “Aanora” story. Yesterday I worked more on the rough outline in order to work on the second act, i.e. the Conflict/Obstacle Act. I want the conflicts and obstacles to evolve organically out of the characters (what I want with every story), so it’s been necessary to think more about who the villain is. Now I know who the villain is and what he wants, but he’s not the only obstacle in the way of the main character achieving what he wants. I realized yesterday that the main character is probably his own biggest obstacle. So this could be a challenge. I understand now that Aanora is so important because she will help the main character overcome himself. Not quite sure how that will happen yet.  I also have the climax sequence in my head but haven’t yet written it.

Working on “Aanora” has been a weird experience for me. Instead of the story unfolding through a main character scene by scene, I’ve had scenes from different parts of the story come to me.  It feels a little like my imagination has thrown a bowl of spaghetti at the wall of my mind to see how much of it will stick to it. I’m frantically trying to save all the strands to see where they fit later. Fortunately, the characters continue to intrigue me and I’m enjoying spending time with them as well.

I do miss my fulltime writing life…..