Friday, November 30, 2012

Breathing Life Into A Large Cast of Characters

"In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of Newsies...On every street corner you saw them carrying The Banner, bringing you the news for a penny a pape."
 How can people not like this movie???? Seriously! I am shocked when I express my adoration of it, and people laugh. Have they never seen this piece of genius? (Christian Bale said, “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to.”) I'm one of those people. Sadly, I've never seen the Broadway version of it. But I've got a dream...

The movie came out while I was in college, and I was unexcited when my mom wanted me to see it--a musical about child labor. Thanks, Mom.

Not long after that, I memorized it. Pieces of it anyway. After I had children of my own, they loved Newsies as much as I did. We watched it over Thanksgiving vacation this year. ("How could you find time for this, when you are slaving away on your newest Nanowrimo masterpiece?" you may ask, but that's a question for a whole other post. Sorry.) One of the things that make Newsies great is its well-developed minor characters.

If Jack Kelly is going to become the leader of the Newsboys Union, he needs a few people to lead, right? But the story isn't about them. It's about Jack. All he really needs are some faceless boys dancing behind him, cheering occasionally. Yet I know them, and I love them, even the ones that barely had a line to say. Here's how I think the authors (Bob Tzudiker and Noni White) pulled it off:

Newsies: The Broadway Musical

Group Consciousness
Right off the bat, we learn that the newsies are poor orphans and runaways, without a leader. Some of them sleep on the streets. The lucky ones live in the Newsboy Lodging House, which is a huge dormitory filled with boys. When the kindly landlord wakes them up first thing in the morning, they are clearly exhausted. Like most boys, however, they wake up quickly, and spend their morning hitting each other and jumping off things.

However, these boys have grown-up responsibilities. The nuns give them bread for breakfast, and then the newsies hurry off to see the day's headlines. A dull headline might mean the difference between starvation and a good meal. These kids also have to worry about bullies, of course. What kid doesn't? But loyalty is important to the Newsies, and they protect each other's back.

Every single one of them seems confidant in the life they have chosen, and they carry their burdens lightly. It almost seems like a happy life. Then they get their day's papers. Taking a collective breath, they disperse into the streets. You realize that those few moments of camaraderie are all they get. The Newsies lead a remarkably solitary life.

When you have a large cast of characters that all have the same purpose--in this case, surviving on the streets by selling newspapers--allowing them to have a group consciousness can imbue them all with the beginnings of a personality without having to build each one from scratch individually.

In Newsies, none of the minor characters ever truly deviate from the group consciousness, or at least not in a way that a rousing song can't fix. In a book, there would probably be more time to allow them to walk their own paths.

Individual Personalities

Still, they have their own personalities. They each have two or three unique things about them, and every sentence they say; every moment they spend on screen, is spent highlighting those individual differences. Here are a few examples

Racetrack: The Witty Gambler with the Charm

Even Racetrack's name tells you what makes him unique. He's a gambler, though he looks like he's maybe fourteen, tops. When Jack (Cowboy) gets in a fight with the two bullies, Oscar and Morris, you can hear Racetrack shout , "Five to one that Cowboy skunks them. Who's betting?"

Racetrack is a charmer and a gambler, but he is also brave to the point of stupidity when it comes to defending women and his friends. The idioms he uses, the way he speaks to adults, every single moment of his on-screen time is spent hammering that into our heads.

Midway through the movie, Racetrack is dragged to the police station. He was knocked unconscious while trying to protect a singer named Mette during a riot. After Racetrack and his friends are arrested and fined $5.00 each, he speaks to the judge on behalf of everyone. "We ain't got five bucks...we ain't even got five cents. Hey, your honor, how about I roll you for it? Double or nothin'." Classic Racetrack.

Crutchy: The Cheerful, Independent Newsie With the Bad Leg

The origins of Crutchy's nickname are pretty obvious--he has a bad leg, so he walks with a crutch. Crutchy is perpetually cheerful and polite. In contrast to the other Newsies, who don't try to hide their dislike the man who sells them papers, when Crutchy greets him, he says, "Heya, Mr. Wisel." When he gets his papers, he thanks Mr. Wisel as profusely as if he'd just done Crutchy a personal favor.

Crutchy takes every opportunity to point out the good in his fellow Newsies. "You're getting the chance of a lifetime here, Davey," he calls at one point. "You learn from Jack, you learn from the best."

The first time the Newsboy Union gets into a fight, Crutchy is gleefully destroying newspapers, and doesn't notice that the police have arrived to restore order. Obviously he needs more time to escape than most of the Newsies, but he only looks up when Racetrack turns back to yell, "Crutchy! Scram! Scram!"

He doesn't scram in time, and gets beat up and sent to The Refuge, a jail for children run by the wicked Snyder. When Jack and David arrive to break him out, Crutchy is all smiles, as usual, but he explains that he can't go. "I ain't walkin' so good," he says. "Oscar and Morris kinda worked me over." Jack offers to carry him out, and for the first time, Crutchy's smile is gone. "Hey! I don't want no one carrying me. Not ever!" Then he protects Jack and Davey by distracting the warden so they can leave.

The next day, the whole group is antsy. They are scared about what they did yesterday, worried about the consequences and angry about the unfairness of it all. Davey is doing his best to keep everyone calm, but Jack's shout of "Let's soak them for Crutchy!" is like setting a match to gasoline. Although Crutchy doesn't get much more screen time, his memory serves as a rallying cry more than once.

And finally...Spot Conlon: The Young, Powerful Leader with the Great Eyes

Ah Spot. We don't even hear his name until half way through the movie, and yet, at least in my house, he gets more screen time than any other actor. (That's because we rewind the scenes he is in. J)

Spot is the leader of the Brooklyn Newsies, and his name strikes fear in the hearts of Newsies everywhere. Spot's Newsies are huge compared to everyone else, but Spot himself is nothing but a kid--about the same size as Racetrack, and quite a bit smaller than Jack. People listen to him though, because he is street-wise and a good leader, with a knack for military tactics.

When Jack, Davey and Boots arrive in Spot Conlon's territory, Spot has already heard about the Newsies' strike. He refuses to join. Davey does his best to sweet-talk Spot, and it  kind of works. Spot is flattered, and decides Davey is a great guy. However, he does not change his decision.

Spot: How do I know you punks won't run the first time some goon comes at you with a club? How do I know you got what it takes to win?
Jack: Because I'm telling you, Spot.
Spot: That ain't good enough, Jacky-boy. You gotta show me.

Spot saves the day more than once, with such great style and background music that I could watch it over and over, all these years later. However, Spot's dialect kind of bugs me, so there aren't a ton of great Spot quotes. There are a couple though:

Spot: Hey, your honor, I object.
The judge: On what grounds?
Spot: On the grounds of Brooklyn, your honor.

And my niece's favorite: "I say, that what you say, is what I say."

If you want well-rounded characters without granting them a lot of space in your writing, imbue them with a group consciousness, and two or three unique characteristics. Every word they say and every action they take should serve the double purpose of furthering your plot and developing those characteristics.

If you have any examples of books that do a great job developing a group of minor characters, I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I just finished one of the most perplexing books I've ever read - courtesy of my dh, again.
This time instead of a self-help book, it was a thriller.

One Shot, by Lee Child.

There's a movie coming out based on it starring Tom Cruise (who, my dh will inform you is all wrong for the part. The main character, Jack Reacher, is 6' 5" and blond - guess we'll see how well Hollywood can work its magic :)

Lee Child is a New York Times best selling author. He has multiple books in this series, all translated into just about any language imaginable.

And this is how he writes:

The man with the rifle drove north. Not fast, not slow Not drawing attention. Not standing out. He was in a light-colored minivan that had seen better days. He was alone behind the wheel. He was wearing a light-colored raincoat and the kind of shapeless light-colored beanie hat that old guys wear on the golf course when the sun is out or the rain is falling. The hat had a two-tone red band all around it. It was pulled down low...

And on and on for 466 pages. It was driving me nuts. All the 'was'-es, all the telling not showing. As far as my memory serves, he never once let us know how anyone was feeling - other than by terse dialogue like, "I want that guy dead." The perspective was so distant the reader might as well be on the moon.

From a literary point of view, his writing is, well, distinctive. It ignores just about every rule that's been pounded into my novice head, including strange sentence fragments such as, "For the summer heat." And weapon descriptions right out of The Christmas Story (ala the Red Rider BB Gun): "It was a Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten-shot box magazine, chambered for the .308."

It drove me nuts - right up until it hooked me.

So, I spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint how a guy who technically does so many things, if not wrong, then at least non-conventionally, writes so compellingly. And if there's something to be learned from it. Here's what I've got so far:

Simplicity. The sentence structure is just about as short and sweet as you could imagine. It made reading very easy, which kept the story humming along.

Description. Okay, on first read the description seemed just over the top - I mean nine sentences about a concrete floor? But, he made it very easy to picture everything. And eventually, all those little details built upon each other and were in the end, vital to solving the story's mystery.

Characters. Because of the distant perspective, there was not a lot of emotional buy-in on the characters. Like the hard-boiled detective novel that it was, most of it was told in a just-the-facts manner. Once again, though, as he laid down layer after layer, we did get to see the characters as more than cardboard, even if I wasn't completely invested.

The Story. The biggest draw was the story. For the first pages I fumed, I read passages in funny voices to my children, I just couldn't believe his style. But my dh continued to encourage me to read a little farther. And he was right. It was a great thriller with a top notch mystery.

Take away, the story comes first. Make it compelling.
 Second, keep the readers vision clear. Your words are the only thing the reader has to visualize a story.
Third, pace. Whether this is done by writing structure, or interest within the story, the reader needs a reason to stay hooked.
Fourth, make the reader root for the main character. Reacher wasn't particularly likable, and quite ruthless in the end, but he was a meticulous investigator with his own code of ethics - create qualities the reader has to admire.

It was a very strange experience to read this book from a writer's perspective, and on the other hand enjoy it as a reader. But, I think it did serve to remind me that there's no one right way to write. And that the story, in the end, is king.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Spider-Man Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man

Or What To Do If The Story You Want To Tell Has Already Been Told.

  The Amazing Spider-Man PosterSpider-Man Poster  

They shared the same suit. They shared a production company, and a studio. They even share a plot. In both tellings, Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider. Uncle Ben dies in both. Parker fights a bad guy and saves the world and a pretty girl both times.

It sounds as if you've seen one (and who hasn't seen the 2002 version), why go see the other?

I'll tell you why. The Amazing Spider-Man is better.

Don't get me wrong. Sam Raimi's version is fun, and awesome, and CGI-riffic. But, something always bugged me about the 2002 version of Spider-Man, that I couldn't put my finger on it until I saw the movie done right. 

That's just my opinion. You can see for yourself in this side by side(ish) comparison.

Peter Parker

Andrew Garfield Picture
Andrew Garfield

Tobey Maguire Picture
That guy you saw at a supermarket once and couldn't decide if he was
 cute, or maybe related to you, or you met him once at creepy navel gazers anonymous.*

In the 2002 version, Peter Parker is a nerdy, shy, bullied kid, who accidentally gets bitten by a spider and develops super powers.

In the Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker is a smart, hurting, outsider whose active search into his fallen father's scientific research on genetically altered spiders (say that five times fast) results in a spider bite. 

Active vs. passive characters. Yay!

The main strength of The Amazing Spider-Man, is the depth of the characters. So, when you want to tell a story that has already been told before, give the characters truth. Show us that they lived before the story starts, give them hobbies, skills, reputations, goals, love interests, shame, fears, and by all that is holy make them hot. 

Let your characters lead the story actively. Make the inciting incident happen because they made a choice, not because of random chance. Random things happen, but interesting people make random things happen. 

Gwen Stacey vs. Mary-Jane Watson

Spider-Man_Blue_Vol_1_5.jpg (350×536)

Fans of the comic will know that the Mary Jane  vs. Gwen Stacey is like...a thing. I-just-watched-the-movie people, like myself, may just be confused as to who this blonde girl is, but let me tell you; Gwen Stacey kicks Mary-Jane in the hiney.

Mary-Jane is a beautiful redhead who kind of likes Spidey, and wants to be an actress. She comes from a troubled home, and constantly needs saving. She is, IMO, more of a plot device than a character.

Gwen Stacey, on the other web-shooting hand, is smarter than Peter, beautiful enough for the elite of the school to respect her, but weird enough to be excluded. She is strong, kind, brave, and willful. She is so awesome, that Peter Parker had to get super powers in order to become equal to her. Basically, in all ways, she wins. Which breaks my heart, because I like her so much, I've looked into her story-line, so I know how this love story is going to end.

(giddy evil giggling)

Ahem. What I like is that she's a real person, and not written as a cartoon. 

So, if you're telling a story that has been told before, why not change up the love story? Romeo and Juliette's Age-Appropriate Cousin, might make for a fun option. Instead of killing the witch, Hansel and Gretel could bring the witch home to marry their father. Feel free to take liberties, and change things up. Even though you are telling a story that has been told before, that doesn't mean you can't let the story live.

Moment of Reveal

In the 2002 version of Spider-Man, Peter Parker falls asleep and wakes up wondering why his glasses aren't working, then takes his glasses off and checks out how buff he is in the mirror. Look, Sam Raimi points out, he's changed.

In the Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker falls asleep on a bus, and a drop of water falls on his nose. Chaos ensues. The moment of reveal is panicked, and violent, and awe dropping. Mark Webb (who also directed 500 days of Summer) shows what it would be like to go from normal to super power, in an instant, while keeping pathos, and attention, focused on the character's experience.

Screen bean character wearing a top hat and looking in a mirror

Lesson to be learned; if you ever have a character looking into a mirror and wondering about how much they've changed, then you are approaching the character from the outside, and your characters are probably a bit too shallow. 

One of the beautiful things about retelling a story, is that you can make a character that readers already love, and turn it into a real person. You get to turn a daydream character, into a friend, into an experience. How awesome is that?

In conclusion

At the end of the movie, Peter Parker walks into his English class, and his teacher says the following, (this isn't a direct quote, just from my memory, so I apologize for any errors), "In college, my Literature Professor told us that there were only ten plots, each retold over and over again, but I think he's wrong. I don't think there are only ten plots, I think there's only one; Who am I?"

I love that. What I want you to get from this post, is not matter how many times a story like yours has been told before, no matter how many cliches, or old tropes, or whatever, it's never been told by YOU before. Focus on the characters, focus on the experience, put yourself onto the page, and it'll work out.

Oh, and also, rent this movie. I enjoyed it as much as I would have if it were a book.

And that's saying something.

* Meetings every Wednesday at your local Starbucks.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

5 Days and Counting

Well, it's nearly over.  There are 5 days left before my 50,000 words need to be finished.  So how am I doing?

Sadly, I'm behind.

I'm not freaking out just yet, though.  I have less than 14,000 words to go, and in 5 days, I think I can manage.  It means picking up the pace and cranking out about 3k a night, but I'm trying to motivate myself with a box of my favorite chocolate, and the promise of a break come December 1st.

Operation: Find Second Wind officially started yesterday, with heavy planning and complicated strategies.  Actually, it mostly consisted of me turning off my TV and sitting down at my computer the second my kids were in bed.  That's been the most important thing I've learned during this experiment: tuck kids in, kiss them good night, and get to writing.  No side tracking to watch one of the many recorded shows I've missed this month.  No reading one more chapter of whatever book I'm in the middle of.  7 pm to 10 pm is writing time.  No exceptions.

Except that I did make a few exceptions.  Thanksgiving.  A second Thanksgiving with the other half of my family.  A couple of nights where my husband and I were able to escape the kids for a few hours and go to dinner.  The night everyone in the house was sick except me.  That's how I got behind.  I didn't make room in my schedule for the unexpected illness, unplanned dates, or impossibly busy days.

The pace I set myself for NaNo was unrealistic.  I know there are lots of people, all over the world, that are already finished.  I congratulate them for their determination and ability to persevere.  They are superstars in my eyes.  For me, NaNo has been a learning experience.  I found out it's a lot easier to carve out 3 writing hours each day than I expected.  I thought it would feel like a chore, but instead it was something to look forward to.  I knew I'd have time to explore my story each night, and that I didn't have to stay up till the wee hours of the morning to hit my word count.  I'm absolutely going to apply this lesson long after NaNo has ended, and because of that, I already feel like a NaNo winner.

So whether I finish or not, I'm glad I've had the opportunity to experience NaNo this year.  I don't see myself transforming into the type of writer that spits out a book every month, but I can be more consistent with my time management, and I know now that I need to schedule a few days off each week.  It has been enlightening, challenging, and a lot of fun.

For all writers working on projects this month, congrats.  You rock!  Don't give up on your stories, or your dreams.  As November draws to a close, give yourselves a pat on the back, and go find yourself a candy bar.  You earned it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Fuel of Stories

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As was the case last year, I've come up to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit family. Because I wanted to avoid the chaos that is the airports at Thanksgiving, I drove. I felt better about my choice when my sister and I drove past the SF airport on Friday night and saw the massive line of cars waiting to get to the terminal.

I’m well-practiced at driving long distances. I’ve gone back and forth across country (alone) several times, and I’ve made the drive between Northern and Southern California a dozen times or more, driving and as a passenger. I cope through methods like coffee drinking, good music, podcasts, and creative corn nut consumption, to name a few.

But on the most recent drive, I found that I was missing the most important coping skill of all. You see, my imagination was malfunctioning.

It was very perplexing. When I tried to consider the stories I had in progress, my mind seemed only able to move within the bounds of existing scenes and plotlines. I couldn't even garner interest in my silly sci-fi/fantasy stories that I never intend to write down. It was hours and hours of pure torture. How do non-writers survive such long periods of boredom? 

Near the end of the drive, steel-gray clouds drifting over butter-yellow hills caught my fancy and re-fired my imagination. But that wasn't until hour seven of eight. My imagination seems to be back to normal now, but I do not want to tolerate this condition again on the eight hours back to San Diego.

And so, in this time of stuffing our bodies full of food, I decided to look up and share ways that we might feed our imagination. Not literally - that imagining food diet sounds kind of silly to me.

What works for inspiration for me? Beautiful images, unusual places, and nature walks. I listed some of my favorite triggers for stories in this post. Susan just blogged about the power of the what-if

To further fuel your imagination, here are some lovely images from Wikimedia Commons' Picture of the Year for 2011.

This is my favorite, because it makes me think of a world frozen over:

And here are some quotes about enhancing your imagination:

From Seven Sentences:
One simple way of increasing your creativity is to use the law of opposites . When you come up with an idea of what to write, of how to play a character, or of what to paint on that canvas… STOP……ask yourself what is the opposite of that idea; now create something about that.  
 From W. I. B. Beveridge, quoted at
Many people will not tolerate a state of doubt, either because they will not endure the mental discomfort of it or because they regard it as evidence of inferiority.
To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough enquiry, so as not to accept an idea or make a positive assertion of a belief, until justifying reasons have been found.
And from Suzanna Stinnet:
Notice in Categories: Start by deciding what it is you want to notice today. Once I did this exercise by actively looking at noses. People's noses, dog's noses, noses on billboards and beaks on birds. Crowdwatching while only noticing noses is absolutely hysterical. You bring your focus to one thing and it compounds. You begin to notice many aspects, and suddenly you can't see anything but noses, noses, noses!! The laughter this induced is another great component to brain health, inducing circulation and releasing many natural chemicals related to brain stimulation. Now, while you are noticing and observing these noses, tell yourself about them. Engage the storytelling part of your brain by actively using descriptors. See the details. Make up new words to tell yourself about the noses everywhere in your environment.

So Happy Thanksgiving again to you all, and I hope you remember to nourish your mind as well as your body, and that there is no such thing as too much pie.

Bonus wikimedia picture: yaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Make Them Suffer

Yes I know this isn't Skyfall.
I saw the latest James Bond movie Skyfall over the weekend.  I liked it.  My husband is a big James Bond fan in general and I’ve seen a lot (not quite all) of the James Bond movies.  Daniel Craig is by far my favorite James Bond, and these last three movies have been eons better than the previous ones, and I think the big difference, why they work for so well for me, is how much the movie makes James Bond suffer.

I’m not going to give anything away since I know the movie just came out, but if you’ve seen Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace you know what I mean.  These writers aren’t afraid to make Bond suffer emotionally and physically.  Every movie puts Bond through a wringer.

I feel kind of bad that I like to see characters suffer almost like I’m a little sadistic, but honestly, I think making the characters suffer ups the stakes, it makes you feel that they have a lot to lose and that success isn’t a given, in fact, it is almost impossible, and that ratchets of the tension while making the hero feel vulnerable, more relatable.  And that is what I personally like in a story.


I started watching Leverage a TV series when it first came out.  And I thought it was really clever.  It was about a team of ex-thieves and ex-con artists conning bad thieves and bad con artists who are ripping off innocent people.  Of course the noble team gives most of the money back to the original victims of the bad guys and keeps only a small percentage for themselves.  It’s kind of a modern day Robin Hood and his merry men.

 I’ve always loved a good heist flick, so I was pretty excited about this show.  And really it had everything I like in a good story, interesting and fun characters with a lot of clever dialogue and twists with great character-character dynamics, and I’m sure that there are a ton of people who love this show (and I do understand why), but I gave up on the show after four or five episodes, and it took me a while to figure out why this show didn’t work for me.

In every episode that I watched there was a point when their mark was on to them, and it looked like their whole scam was unraveling, but in the end, it was always revealed that they had planned the whole thing, that the mark catching on was just part of the con.  It was really clever how everything came together and how they tricked the bad guys, but it go really old really fast for me.

I realized the show didn't work because there was a the lack of stakes.  The team never really suffered or struggled.  They were always better, smarter, one step ahead of everyone else, and while it was cool that they were so awesome, but it also made them less interesting, less real, less human.  And while it is fun to watch a group of criminal geniuses pull off a clever con, it is more fun to watch that clever con fall apart completely and leave the team scrambling and struggling to pull the pieces together and somehow managing to regroup and pull off an even cleverer scheme, like in the movie The Italian Job.

Elena vs. Bella

Just because Breaking Dawn was recently released and I haven’t blogged about Twilight in at least a couple of months, I feel the need to mention Breaking Dawn.  I’ve blogged before on how I felt about Bella’s transition into a vampire was too easy (you can read it here), but the recent episodes of Vampire Diaries have made me think about this a little more (WARNING:  massive spoilers for both Breaking Dawn and Vampire Diaries).

This season in Vampire Diaries, the main character, Elena, has just turned into a vampire.  There are a lot of parallels between Elena and Bella since they are both human girls who fall in love with a vampire (or vampires in Elena case), but unlike Bella, Elena never wanted to be a vampire.  More than anything, she wanted to remain human.  Even in times where her problems would be solved if someone just turned her, she always chose the harder path of staying human.  So she wasn’t happy at all about being turned.

In the past several episodes, Elena has struggled immensely with being a vampire.  She can’t keep down animal blood and has to drink human.  Enjoys drinking blood a little too much, and almost killed her human friend who was a willing donor.  She struggles between that predator vampire side and her overly compassionate human nature.  Even though she is super strong and wicked fast and will be young forever, the down side of drinking blood and nearly killing people is torturing her.  And for additional angst, her vampire boyfriend, Steffen, is having a hard time adjusting to the new Elena because he’s struggled immensely trying to keep those murderous urges in check and seeing those aspects of himself that he loathes in Elena has put a strain in their relationship.  This all translates into lots of tension and conflict, and I think it makes for a very compelling story, and I’m really enjoying this season.

Honestly, this is where I thought Breaking Dawn was going.  There was all of this build up about how hard it was to become a fledgling vampire, and I really thought Breaking Dawn would focus on Bella struggling to adapt to be a vampire and maybe even some conflict between Bella and Edward because of how becoming a vampire changed her.  It felt like a natural place for the story to go, and I was disappointed that Bella had no struggles at all in becoming a vampire.  I thought it was a missed opportunity for lots of great internal conflict that would have enhanced the tension of the story.

I just think that there is something about seeing a person or character suffering that makes us empathize and care more about that them.  Although, I do think that there is a limit.  You shouldn’t go out of your way to make your character’s suffer.  That can feel just as false as going out of your way to protect your characters.  Also, it can be emotionally exhausting for the reader when everything goes wrong and the character loses everything.  Like in all aspects of writing, there needs to be a balance.  I’ve heard the saying that a writer should essentially chase the character up a tree and then throw rocks at him, and I’d like to add that maybe the writer shouldn’t go a step further and burn the tree down.  There is a limit to making your characters suffer, but you should make them suffer.


Friday, November 16, 2012

In Which I Go Back To High School

I just got home from a whirlwind trip across the country to attend my grandfather's funeral. On Tuesday, my niece was working on an English assignment, and she asked me for some help. Her class is reading Frankenstein, and this was the assignment:
Mary Shelly writes in her introduction, “Everything must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindus give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists of the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject and in the power of molding and fashioning ideas suggested by it.” Explain what she is saying. Do you agree or disagree with her? Support your thoughts with evidence and examples.
I found this quote and assignment so fascinating that I decided to turn my thoughts about it into my blog post this week.

The funny thing is, I'm pretty certain I'm not going to interpret this quote 100% correctly. I can think of at least one more likely interpretation than the one I'm going to use here. Part of me wonders if she is trying to explain where her own story ideas came from--that there is nothing truly new, but only things we pull out of chaos and make our own. When I try to backtrack and find out where my ideas came from, it does seem as though it is "turtles all the way down." Though fascinating to think about, this is not where I'm headed with this blog post.

The first time I read that quote, I was certain I knew what she was talking about before I'd even finished the first sentence. "She's writing about backstory," I thought to myself, and it wasn't until I had finished reading the whole quote that I realized I might be wrong. Such is the joy of not really being in high school though. This blog post can meander wherever I want it to.

The Great Paradox
Everything must have a beginning...And the beginning is hard. As we've lamented many times here on The Prosers, finding the right place to start your story is a treacherous endeavor. A book has to begin somewhere, but wherever your story begins, it's still right in the middle. It makes me think about the beginning of David Copperfield, when he said, "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born..." Even trying so desperately to begin at the beginning, David Copperfield comes to realize that he is still a product of everything that happened before.

Instead of lamenting this fact, authors should rejoice in it. Revel in it. Use it to write thousands of pages and loads of sequels, prequels and companion novels!
This morning, after I dropped my kids off at school, I went swimming, which is something one of my characters loves to do. I thought about her as I swam, and I found myself wondering if she was the kind of person who would get up early in the morning to swim, if it was her only chance. I found myself inventing a whole story around the answer to that question. That story probably won't make it into the book. But I'm certain it will make the book better, nonetheless.

Thanks, Kayla, for giving me such a fun topic to write about this morning!

P.S. I'm the kind of person who can't stand not knowing something if I think I could find the answer on Google in 30 seconds or less. For your edification, this is what I googled today:

"To speak in Sanchean phrase" Sanchean phrase refers to Sancho Panza from Cervantes' Don Quixote, when he said "In this matter of government, everything depends upon the beginning." Apparently, Shelly was a big fan of Cervantes.

Columbus and the egg refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. There is a popular story about the time Christopher Columbus was told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.
The Columbus story may have originated with Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni. In his book History of the New World,published in 1565,[2] he wrote:   
"Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: 'Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.' Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said:'My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.' They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it."

The elephant and the tortoise: There are some very interesting modern-day discussions about the world being supported on the back of the elephant, who is standing on the back of a tortoise. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, tells a story about a scientist wondering what the turtle is standing on. A little old woman tells him there are "turtles all the way down." Start looking this up on google, and you might be there all day, learning about infinite regress and Terry Pratchett's discworld. Fun, fun stuff.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


You've met the subject of today's post before. So have I. 

WhatIf has been an acquaintance, a hanger-on, and sometimes a friend of ours for years and years.  WhatIf  is the lifeblood of every writer, every child, and the first step of any pursuit. 

Walking down the street your child asks, 'WhatIf I walked on the sky and looked up at the sidewalk?'

A businessman thinks, 'WhatIf I made a product that did X instead of Y, and far more effectively, too?' 

A couch potato watches runners go by and wonders, 'WhatIf I could to that?'

WhatIf is a powerful force in our lives. It sparks the imagination, ignites ideas, and lets us see the world in a different way. It drives us to change.

Curiosity, observation, and consistent practice help us cultivate and nurture the positive side of WhatIf.

Sometimes, though, despite our best intentions, WhatIf decides to veer off the productive path and go all negative on us.

WhatIf  you can’t get your novel to come together the way you want? 
Better let it stew longer.

WhatIf you've been raising your child/cat/houseplant all wrong, and they'll be in therapy for the rest of their lives because of you?
Must scour the internet for more advice...  

WhatIf you’ve 'wasted' years of your life on something you love but it will never be recognized by the world?   
Years that could have been spent, uh, playing Tetris instead?

Remember the raven from Edgar Allen Poe, crying ‘Nevermore, nevermore?’ Well, when WhatIf gets all overbearing on me, I sometimes imagine it as one of Poe's birds, just as sinister, only slightly more batty - cerulean blue, with stork legs, rhinestone glasses and a tuft of feathers poking out from the top of its head. From its perch on my shoulder, it cranes its ungainly neck, peering out at the world and whisper-squawks in my ear, “Whatif, whatif? You'd better not try.”

I'd really rather have WhatIf as an imaginative ally than a defeatist saboteur, so here are a few things I've found that help keep it in its proper place:

Think it Through

If worry over a possible outcome is paralyzing you, give in to the evil side of WhatIf and think of the worst possible result you might face. 

True Story: You decide to make ooey-gooey homemade donuts, and because you’re the generous sort, you decide to send a dozen to the neighbors. The kids are already out the door with the plate when you realize that your neighbor’s told you (more than once) that half her family is gluten intolerant. 

The WhatIf bird starts ‘Ack, ack, acking’ on your shoulder, your palms get sweaty, your brain starts in with the ‘you’re so stupid’ routine – 

And you stop. Okay, let’s imagine this through.  

The kids get to the neighbor’s door. They ring the bell, and all smiley they hold up the plate of donuts – and the neighbor’s nostrils flare, her hand jumps to her throat. “How could you?” she shrieks. “You know that will kill half our family, don’t you? Don’t you?”

Preposterous. And you brush that WhatIf bird off your shoulder, laughing, and realize that your neighbor will probably see your good intentions, even with your little goof. And the non-gluten intolerant half of her family will be happy to have twice as many donuts to eat. 

Things are rarely as bad as WhatIf can make it out to be.

Baby Steps

As Bill Murray says in ‘What About Bob’ (one of my favorite movies), baby steps, baby steps. That WhatIf bird may have had its claws in you a long time and has probably stopped you from moving forward on a lot of things you'd really like to do. I appreciate the twelve step programs that emphasis ‘just for today.’ Or if you can’t manage that, just for this hour, or this minute.   

Get past the first page...or paragraph...or word on a project. 

Force yourself to get on that treadmill...or go stand in the exercise room...or at least put your hair in a ponytail  - because you will work up to exercising soon.

Build Momentum

Use WhatIf as a compass. The thing that's so hard for you to begin doing, may be the very thing that will bring you the most satisfaction in the end. 

So, keeping that in mind, once you’ve taken the first baby step, don’t rest. Take another step. It might not get easier (Henry Fonda threw up before every performance because of nerves - every single performance, even into his 70's) , but those steps will get you farther toward your dreams than you are now.
Put Past Performance to Good Use

WhatIf your rough draft is awful and you can never make it good enough? 

WhatIf you can't ever figure out how to solve the problem you're facing, not in a million years? 


Stop and realize that you’ve dug yourself out of messes before. Things have always, always gotten better. Why shouldn’t they this time? They will. You know they will.

I suppose my silly WhatIf bird is really anxiety in disguise. I’ve often thought of anxiety as the evil twin to depression (which Melanie talked about so eloquently here).  And I think both can be equally detrimental to writing and life. doesn't have to be that way. So tell WhatIf to pipe down and behave. You have something to offer this world that no one else can ever give it.