Friday, May 18, 2012

Crash! Authors and Parents Differ in One Very Important Way


This is not the happiest way to wake up in the morning, but sometimes it happens. My daughter was just about to walk out the door, and for undisclosed reasons I was still in bed (I am confident enough with my parenting that I don't feel the need to explain why I was still in bed, but trust me, it was all part of a super-awesome parenting plan. )

My first thought was "That didn't sound like someone falling down the stairs. Whew." But it was immediately followed by, "Oh my gosh! Her laptop. I heard glass shattering. Do laptops shatter? This is going to cost me a fortune."

And then, "Or maybe it was her Ipod. You know, people say that those screens break if you drop them in just the right way. Somehow I never imagined it would be that noisy though."

And finally, "Perhaps I should get out of bed and find out what happened."

The infamous snowglobe
 It was her Barbie Rapunzel snowglobe that I got on clearance from Wal-mart when she was eight years old.

What a relief. Her dad was already in the car, and she was late. I'd clean it up and everything would be just fine again.

Except she was crying. She loved that snowglobe. It was beautiful and girlie, and something precious from an easier, more care free time. I'd like to think she loved it because it was a present from her super-awesome mom with the super-awesome parenting plan. And it was 5:50 in the morning, and she should have been driving down the driveway at 5:45, and her journal and other random papers were now a glittery, wet mess. I guess I'm not sure what all was going on in that poor girl's head, because she had to stay after school for drama, so we haven't had a chance to debrief yet.

Accidents happen all the time when you are a parent, and cause our worry-o-meter to skyrocket. Thank heavens that almost every single time it's not as bad as we think it is. (My child! After that, everything is relative.)

Writers don't have that luxury. The situation had better be as bad as the reader's first reaction, or even worse. That doesn't mean that the crash can't be a snow-globe sometimes. But it had better be a snow-globe that symbolizes something bigger--your heroine's innocent childhood, gone forever. His only clue to his kidnapped brother's whereabouts. The one thing worth any money in their empty, freezing home. The magic potion that was going to cure his mother's sickness. The deadly e-bola virus, released in a crowded marketplace. The proof that the Curse of Clumsiness was real.

"Oh! For a second I thought that was going to be important." ßYou don't EVER want your reader to think this.

You want them to think this à Holy cats! I know I said I would start dinner after this page, but I can't put it down. What happens next???

This week, as I've been editing my novel, I've been ashamed at some of my namby-pambiness. I have a tendency to think parent-like thoughts about my characters: "I know it's supposed to be dangerous, but I don't want her to actually get hurt. I'd better make sure the water only goes up to her ankles." Occasionally I can get away with that the first time through, but by the second draft, I've got to think of every possible thing that could go wrong--riptides and deep currents she can't see, water that soaks through her clothes and knocks her over, no way to get back to shore, alligators and freak thunderstorms. 

At any given moment, I can name every single possible disaster that could be happening to any of my children. I can use that terrible curse to my advantage as an author. Not all my frightening ideas make it into the story, but a few of them must.

If, as is the case in the scene I described above, she was left alone near a dangerous river because it was getting cold, and her date ran into the house to grab some jackets, then I am morally obligated to use that change in weather to make the story more exciting--a sudden gale rips the boat from its mooring and it runs her down, an unexpected rainstorm wrecks her visibility and starts a flash flood which knocks her into the whitewater, or she gets a life threatening illness and spends the next two weeks in bed (perhaps you can't see how this last one makes the story more exciting. I guess you'll just have to read my book to find out). 

Here's my writing advice for this week: 
You aren't your character's loving parents. You are their worst nightmare. Start acting like it.

And have a great day.


  1. Sometimes, in a desperate attempt to plot, I start conversations with my characters. One of my MCs refers to me as "God" and infuses an impressive amount of disdain in his voice as he does it. In his story as it currently exists, I've taken him from his family, stuck him with people he doesn't trust, tortured him physically, forced him into moral dilemmas he can't win, killed his best friend, and broke off his relationship with his girlfriend. He doesn't like me.

    The problem is, readers probably won't like me, either. Good things have to happen, too.

    I'm wondering if parents are inherently kinder.

  2. Extremely good point, Ann. I would have adored the Pendragon series if ANYTHING good ever stuck for that poor boy. Somehow every good thing turned out to be something planned by the villain and part of a much worse BAD thing. There's probably some scientific ratio of good to bad things that make a book enthralling. I'm thinking it's 1:1. Anyone care to disagree?

  3. I don't do mean things to my characters. They do mean things to each other. Okay, I guess I do throw in some good rain storms that don't help much, but I just love rain.

    Great post, Melanie.

  4. I can stand a higher ratio of good to bad when I read, but there have to be clues that things are going to get better. Wizard's First Rule was a good example of that. Things were going along pretty well for Richard and Kahlan in general. They were making progress, talking to all the right people, even making decent time, until Richard was captured by the Mord-Sith Denna. He spent a good chunk of the next few chapters being horribly tortured until his mind wasn't even his anymore. It was sickening to watch him lose himself, and I think I cried a couple of times, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. Actually, a couple of lights, and that made it bearable.

    The first light came when Kahlan entered the Con-Dar and went on a rampage to avenge what she thought was Richard's murder. I thought, "Okay, help is on the way. If anyone can save him, it'll be Kahlan." Which is why I stayed up all night reading to see just how she would accomplish it.

    The second light was a little more subtle. It was Terry Goodkind's skill as a writer that assured me things wouldn't end badly. I had faith in him not to string me along and then dump a bad ending on me. As a reader, I'm willing to put up with a lot if I have faith in the writer, and after several hundred pages, I knew I could trust Terry Goodkind to do the ending justice.

    That's my take on the good to bad ratio.

    1. I thought of Richard and Kahlan too, Trisha. I thought those scenes with Denna were going to traumatize me forever. I've often wondered what it was about Goodkind's writing that kept me pushing through when I've shut other books for less.

      First, I had really bonded with Richard as a character--I still think he's amazing. Second, was what you said--I had faith that it was all going to turn out alright somehow--and it was more than knowing there were still thousands of pages left to read. Wizard's First Rule is a good example of a book that crossed the line for me, but was still successful.

  5. The proof that the Curse of Clumsiness was real.


    I've never had trouble being mean. But then, I write a lot of horror, so meanness is kind of a necessity.

  6. Excellent! I love your last advice.

  7. Great post!!

    I loved the "Curse of Clumsiness was real."


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