Shake it up!

Paula’s Post #78 –

Dateline: Tallinn, Estonia

This week, some of my 5writer colleagues are reflecting on the need to ‘kill your darlings’. To ruthlessly toss old manuscripts, or chapters or paragraphs. To callously rid one’s closet of dusty old unpublished manuscripts of that which is lacklustre, trite and perhaps even amateurish. See for example Joe’s post on ‘To toss or not to toss’ and Helga’s variation on a theme: If you’ve always done it that way, it is probably wrong.

One of the sticky webs in which we writers are oft caught is the old trap of falling into the world of the ‘predictable’. Repeating stale old stereotypes without a sufficient examination or understanding of how these may be outdated anachronisms from another time, another place.

One sees this in particular in the realm of detective and crime fiction where, particularly with a male protagonist, we frequently encounter the stereotypical burnt out, hard-drinking world-weary cop. Often a loner who rebels against authority figures, has a string of failed marriages and a penchant for obscure jazz musicians. Seriously, how many times have you encountered this character in fiction?

Last week, in my post ‘Just Ask‘, I urged fledgling writers not to ‘make things up’ out of their imagination or from books, but to also “get out there” in the real world and ask experts in the field for background information that might enrich their novel with the ring of authenticity.

Since I’ve been travelling in the Baltic region, I can’t help thinking about the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

What made these books so popular, I wondered?

If you’ve read the first in the series, you’ll know that it starts out breaking all the rules. As fledgling writers, we’re told that if we don’t start ‘right with the action’ our manuscripts are doomed to end up on the slush pile. Yet the first 100 pages of Larsson’s story are, in my humble opinion, deadly dull. Full of backstory about a now concluded Swedish libel trial and the system that created it. To make matters worse, readers are also treated to the introduction of many new minor characters and their intricate web of family relationships. They all have unmemorable, complicated Swedish names, that are difficult to sort out and the story’s two main characters, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisabeth Salander, don’t even appear on stage together until well into the book.

Yet despite all this, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy turned into a world wide phenomenon.

Why?

Why, despite these flaws, does this book suceed?

Many, reviewers, critics and fellow writers say the answer can be found in Larsson’s characters. For example,  Avril Joy, in a 2010 post entitled ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, – Breaking the Rules: suggests the answer lies in the author’s fresh and compelling protagonists, especially LIsbeth Salander:

But what really makes the whole thing work are the protagonists, compelling and complex characters, in particular the eponymous heroine – Lisbeth Salander – a damaged and vulnerable individual.We care about her, we want to know what happens to this twenty four year old, anorexic, computer hacker, with a photographic memory, a goth like appearance, multiple piercings, tattoos and an unexplained past… need I say more?

Now, think back and compare Larsson’s offbeat and unpredictable Lisabeth Salander with that stereotypical hard-drinking, world weary cop prototype we’ve seen so often in detective fiction. No wonder readers found Larsson’s heroine such a breath of fresh air. 

So today, I’m mulling how we 5writers can ‘shake things up’ a bit.

How we can kill all those trite and unoriginal storylines, those flat, predictable and too oft-seen stereotypes. One of the things I think is so very important in a writer’s life is to get out of your study, or kitchen or garret, or whatever cubbyhole you feel most comfortable in and get ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ with the goal of killing these old stereotypes.

Travel is, of course, the ultimate expressway to new ideas and experiences, but even a trip around your own home town or the nearest large city can suffice to help you ‘shake up’ old stereotypes and garner fresh ideas for making your protagonists, villains and supporting characters more compelling.

To illustrate the ‘shake it up’ principle, here are a few examples:

Weather:

Today, my cruise ship is docked in Estonia. I don’t know what I expected of Estonia, certainly not the relentless drizzle that we’ve encountered. But then again, most people don’t fantasize about the wonderful, rainy midsummer’s cruise they’re going to take to the Baltic. Blue skies and sun shimmering off the water is what we see in the travel brochures, dammit!

But today, it is raining and my fellow passengers are straggling down the pier and into tour buses armoured in unfashionable rain-repellent ponchos and windbreakers. None of them look particularly happy. If anything, I’d charitably call their collective mood, ‘subdued’. Perhaps less charitably, ‘grumpy’.

This is not, as they say, quite what they expected. Weather is interesting. Long descriptive passages, particularly in contemporary commercial fiction can be deadly dull. But weather is a catalyst. It can cause unexpected things to happen and cause predictable characters to do something unpredictable. So, think about weather, and how it might impact your plot, and shake things up a bit.

Setting:

According to my pre-cruise research, Tallinn, Estonia is famous for its walled medieval town center. Of course, the description in the guidebooks left me unprepared for the rather unsettling discovery that the first commercial establishment we encountered as we entered the gates of the old city was the ubiquitous ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds. Again, not quite what I expected.

Most of the inhabitants of the old city seem to be engaged in what may ultimately be the only industry left in the world: tourism. Young men and women dressed in cheaply made facsimiles of medieval burgher’s dress hawk restaurant handbills and attempt to entice the hoards of cruise ship passengers into their cafes for a coffee or a glass of wine. Of course, not many passengers have much interest in sitting in an outdoor cafe, basking in the rain, nor in a glass of wine at 9:30 in the morning when the ambient temperature is hovering around 54 degrees F or 12 C. So, those who have not signed up for a group tour trudge up and down the streets, looking for the ‘real’ Tallinn and we do the same.

Until suddenly it strikes me: This is the real Tallinn now.

Unless you’re writing a historical novel, this crazy mixture of cheap t-shirts, souvenir shops all selling the same mass-manufactured goods and ubiquitous pizza cafe’s comprise the ‘real Talinn’ as it is now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are authentic streets, occupied by real people going about their every day lives and struggling with everyday problems in Tallinn. But these aren’t immediately visible on the rough, cobblestoned streets of the old medieval walled city. If anything, I feel like I’m trapped in some Disneylandesque experience.

Not exactly what I expected.

But this, of course, is good.

Now, if I were writing a novel about present day Estonia (instead of about 19th C Scotland and Australia) I’d at least have new insight in how to ‘shake things up’ a bit.

Character:

So, while my husband decided to stay in town and walk the old medieval ramparts in search of the ‘real Tallinn’, I hopped the shuttle bus back to the ship and sprinted the 400 yards or so back down the pier. (Oh, who am I kidding, you know I barely managed a ‘run-walk’, but, in comparison to the hobbling pace of my somewhat older fellow passengers, I looked good, baby). As I sat down to lunch in the elegant Terrace Cafe, my mind was bubbling with plot ideas, though in truth most of them along all too familiar story-lines: ‘intrepid young heroine returns to her cruise ship, leaving husband to explore the old town alone when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Panicked, she returns to look for him, only to be caught up in a web of intrigue and deceit…’

Well, you get the idea. But that, as they say, is the expected. What was not expected is that I might suddenly find myself sitting at a window table in an Estonian port, on an Italian built ship, registered in the Marshall Islands with corporate headquarters in Miami enjoying a ‘Mexican Day’ lunch prepared by an international crew. I enjoyed a tortilla soup, a quesadilla and a Corona served by my Indian waiter from Goa by the name of Bosco. He tells me his parents names are Rita and Alex, his brother’s name Blase. Originally, they were of Portuguese descent, and their surname, at least to my ears,  sounded Hispanic. He tells me they are now very anglicized.

Of course, I asked him all these crazy questions, because that is what I do, and he happily (I think) answered them, mostly because I was  a) alone, b) the only person under 80 in the immediate vicinity and, c) not whining about the weather.

So, my point?

I could not make this stuff up. If I made it all up, I fear that my tendency would be to fall into trite and familiar characterizations, flat settings straight from guidebooks, far from the ‘reality’ of today’s multi-national, inter-connectedness of all things world.

So, to avoid these pitfalls, go get some inspiration for some original settings and characters, Just push yourself out of that comfy chair and ‘Get out there!’

Do your own, “real world” original research. Leave the safety and security of your comfortable writing room and roam the streets a bit. Look for the quirky and unexpected. Let your mind run free and start dreaming up some new plot, character and settings. Something ‘unexpected’.

Do it every chance you get.

Shake it up!

Oh, some of the pool staff just went by wearing hooded, knee-length snow parkas, (the kind lifties wear in ski resorts) rolling stacks of deck chairs down the deck to be put away. Another not quite what I expected ‘shake it up’ image that I’m sure will stick with me and re-appear, in some form or other, in a future novel.

But I guess that means that the rain is predicted to continue for the foreseeable future.

Drat!

Good for my writing though. Maybe I’ll manage more than one post this week and ‘shake it up’ a bit.

6 thoughts on “Shake it up!

  1. Sorry about the rain and the golden arches! But thanks for posting on Monday, thus saving me from the dilemma of whether to write a blog post today … Or pack up the boat for a cruise up the coast. We humans crave novelty, especially writers, methinks. Novelty comes in all varieties though, like those ‘every flavour’ jelly beans in Harry Potter, and sometimes you do get snot flavour. You are wonderfully irrepressible when it comes to making lemonade out of lemons – a great survival skill!

  2. Thanks for all the encouragement Silk! Enjoy a reprieve from posting, happy to help out. I’m chanting ‘Rain, Rain, Go Away – though it certainly didn’t work today for our first of three days in St. Petersburg. Our tour guide handed out those kind of thin see through plastic ponchos you see people wearing at soccer games and the like. Lovely image as we traipsed through the courtyard’s of the Tsar’s palaces. But, as we writers like to say, lots of lovely images for the mighty pen!

    Have a lovely sailing trip. I presume that means the sun is out there?

  3. I can relate to this post. I took a course on writing young adult novels two years ago. Although the course was great, my resulting outline was not powerful enough to keep me writing. Now, I am taking a course on blogging a book, and I am revisiting the outline. I like the original concept of the book, but I can see I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

    • Ah… we all have so much revision to do! The real trick seems to be finding one we’re passionate about to stick with through months and months of revisions. I freely admit I’m a lover of ‘first drafts’ but I’ve a few under the bed I love enough to dust off and take another look at. As a group, and a larger writing community, we’re learning all the time and I’m sure with the distance of time will come fresh insight. Good luck with your revisions!

  4. Ah, so sorry about the rain, Paula! Hope you still get a break while in St.Petersburg. I loved your post and can relate. Tallinn, like so many cruise ship terminals, have become victims, as well as beneficiaries, of tourism. Victims, because as you so aptly observed, it has damaged its unique culture, but at the same time, it has brought economic benefits for its citizens. The sad truth, there may be very few, if any, places left where tourism hasn’t made its mark. At least you are mining the opportunities for adding grist to your story mills by talking to all sorts of people who sound eminently interesting. That’s your silver lining in those dreadful clouds. Hope you get a patch of blue though while in St.P.

  5. Pingback: Shake It, Baby, Shake It | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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