The school of real life

real-life-school

Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.

 

 

Down, sometimes, but never out

IMG_0080Helga’s Post # 118Reading back over our posts it seems the 5 writers are in constant motion. Traveling motion that is. How on earth can we ever hope to produce a novel within the confines of our restless lifestyles?

But we try. And from what I glean checking in on my writing buddies, everyone hunkers down, making progress on our manuscripts, the due date February 5, 2016 not so far away suddenly. We have recognized some time ago that the only way to produce a decent (and hopefully marketable) manuscript is to commit publicly to a deadline. Miss it and you’ll chance being tarred and feathered in the public arena of social media. So even with all of our erratic lifestyles all of us are determined not to be the one publicly shamed come February 5 next year.

Easier said than done. Speaking strictly for myself, I have been battling a gruesome schedule, leaving no time to add pages to my draft manuscript. Life has a way to push us in a corner when we least expect it. An aging mother overseas who really needs to hug us, or a commitment that takes priority over all else in our lives, something that absolutely cannot wait because we owe it to someone special, these are the things that tend to trip a writer, even the most serious.

Just a few days after returning from a trip to Europe (almost entirely family-oriented), I embarked on a long road trip, solid three days of driving with two overnight stays, from Vancouver to Palm Springs. A close friend offered to be my escort or co-pilot, plying me with snacks and stories throughout. While no progress was made on the writing front, ideas were hatched during the long journey, ideas that may well become part of a larger story.

So now that my immediate travels are behind, my writing life will start in earnest. But wait, not so fast. Arriving at a house that stood empty for over 6 months creates its own challenges. No WiFi, no cable, no phone (other than my trusted cell phone, equipped with a US-friendly SIM card once I had crossed the border from Canada). It was, symbolically and in a real sense, arriving in a desert landscape.

My to-do list stretches across three pages. None of the issues are remotely related to writing my novel. And every single day our deadline gets nearer. Every day not writing means I will have to do much of it towards the end. Writing partner Paula talked about binge-writing not long ago. I am now officially an honorary member of the concept. Never mind writing three pages or whatever, every single day. It may well come down to writing thirty or more in a day, and let’s not forget nights. There may not be much sleep during the last crucial weeks.

Yes, I’ll get to the writing. After I have run the vacuum cleaner through the house to get rid of all the dead (and not so dead) crickets that have taken residence in the last six months in my house. And after I manage to get that dreaded service provider, Time Warner, hook up my services. It has only taken a dozen phone calls with extensive waiting periods to get it into the pipeline.

Not easy times for writers who mean it. Writers whose characters are keen to get back on stage to be heard. Characters that are bursting at the seam to do what their creator has in mind for them.

All will get their pound of flesh. After the fridge is filled with necessities, after the car is washed after driving over 2,200 km, after I’ve put my face to the sun, even for a day, to get rid of that pasty northern pallor.

After that, I will bid my characters to come on stage, to dance to the tune I will have composed for them.

A writer’s life. A writer’s privilege. Not so bad, eh?

My 3 am brilliance

3amHelga’s Post #116:  The gauntlet, ah, that gauntlet… It wakes me up at 3 in the morning and keeps me thinking about my plot for the 5/5/5 novel writing challenge. Snippets of brilliant scenes for my new book take shape in total darkness. I commit them to memory so I can write them out at the crack of dawn.

Back to sleep for a bit. Morning arrives. I sit down at my Mac with my first Nespresso and open a new page on Word. I am ready to start writing, recalling those clever 3 AM images and ideas.

But wait, nothing emerges. How can it be? All these ideas made so much sense during the night and I visualized them clearly. Where are they now? Why do they hide from me?

I am sure this is not only my debacle. What’s more, I am finding that it happens during the day too, when I witness some sort of event or observe an interesting person or scene. What helps is to just point and click with my iPhone, or at least write a note to myself if it’s too obvious to take a snapshot. That way my memory can’t play tricks on me later.

We writers are always on the lookout for unusual images. With our senses constantly on alert, not much escapes us that could be worth including in our stories. Often it’s a small detail that triggers an idea for a scene. Take this for instance:

I was walking out of Walmart (one of my least favorite stores, though it’s convenient), behind a couple of forty-somethings. He, wearing Bermuda shorts, caught my attention. His hefty calves sported prominent tattoos, in heavy, black ink. The left calf showed two large numerals, ‘14’, the left one the number ‘88’. I had never seen this before. Curious, I googled it once I got home.

I had no idea that these numerals are hate symbols.

One website, ‘Hate on Display’, shed light on the mystery. They have an extensive hate symbols database and define ‘14’ and ‘88’ as follows:

“14 is numerical shorthand for the white supremacist slogan known as the “14 Words”:  ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’ The numeric symbol 14 is used even in those countries where the translated version of the slogan comes to fewer or greater than 14 actual words. Because of its symbolic significance, white supremacist groups use the number widely, either by itself or in conjunction with other numeric symbols, especially 88 (which stands for “Heil Hitler”. ‘H is the 8th letter in the alphabet. A variation is the number 18 for Adolf Hitler, with A being the first letter in the alphabet). Thus white supremacists may incorporate the number 14 into the names of groups or publications, into screen names or e-mail addresses, or virtually anywhere else.”

Bingo. I just discovered what might become an interesting character in my novel. An insignificant one to be sure, but he could show up at the right time and add a useful detail to a scene. It would be perfect to ‘show’ that character rather than telling my readers what an abomination this guy is. As well, the fact that supremacist groups use the number 14 as code to identify themselves to likeminded haters virtually anywhere, could make for a timely and fascinating plot about that most repulsive underbelly of human nature and society.

So fear not, fellow writers, if your brilliant 3 AM ideas evaporate at dawn. There’s plenty to observe during your day that can be mined for your novel. All you need to do is keep your eyes wide open and senses on high alert. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

I for one will have my eyes even wider open in about a week from now. That’s when I am leaving for Vienna, my hometown, for three weeks. It’s no coincidence that Sigmund Freud opened shop in that city. Beautiful, neurotic and with more contradictions than any other city I have visited. So stay tuned for progress reports, though I can’t promise blog posts while I am there. You see, Vienna has sort of not quite kept pace with many other places. They do have some of the best musical performances in the world, yet the Internet still spooks them in many circles. It means I have to take the metro and bus to get to a Starbucks in the city center if I want Wi-Fi.

But I am sure to notice some eclectic, novel-worthy characters on the way.

5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

 New pages written:  0 (that’s all?)

Characters created: 5

Outline written: A partial (doesn’t count. See quote below)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. ~E. L. Doctorow

Looting your life

Joe’s Post #134

timmiesSo there I was, sitting at my computer, drinking a Timmies double-double, trying to add a few characteristics to my character (to, you know, flesh him out a bit), when three things occurred to me.

1) Timmies coffee is brain food. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

2) Creating amazing fictional characters is hard. It may not seem like it, but avoiding shallow, cliched characters takes time, some thinking and a lot of work.

3) Why create fictional characters at all when you can draw from people in your own life (or even other fictional ones, but that’s another blog entirely.)

It was the #3 that really got me thinking. Since I have lived a life of utter normality, I had to look farther afield. But if you lived an amazing life, use that. I know some of our 5/5/5 have had extraordinary lives that they could easily draw upon. Just not me.

So, I looked back to someone in my life who I really admired, someone who I dearly wish was still alive today. My dad.

battling dragonsI was pretty young when he passed so I never got a chance to really hear about his life from him. Sadly, at 13, you just don’t care that much about what your parents did or didn’t do. They exist only as your parents. They never had sex. They never had their hearts broken. They never went on adventures or committed crimes or battled dragons.

Now my dad never battled dragons, at least that I know about, but he did have a life, and it’s sometimes not the large things that make up a life, but the small. My dad had lost his sense of smell after working in a slaughter house for 2 years. He could only smell a few things and those things he could smell, he loved. Like the smell of hot tar.

Who loves the smell of hot tar?

I looked back at what foods he loved, at what he did as a young man (he played the bass in big bands), at who he hated and why. I looked at the mementos he kept and the pictures that were taken of him.

london burningSure, his experience in WWII shaped a lot of who he became, but there were so many other little things that made up who he was as a person. He took in homeless boarders, lost souls who needed guidance, young men who just needed someone to believe in them. He felt he was repaying a debt to someone who had taken him in when he’d come to Canada, penniless and desperate. He’d write ‘Grandma Ag’ (Agnes) every week like he wrote his mom.

Such things great characters are made of. The debts, the loves, the hates, the small joys, the big laughs, the things he would keep in a cluttered desk drawer.

So, I’ll mine a few things from my dad’s life, as much to honor him as to make a really good character. When you read about Kurt Yager, or any of my male protagonists, know that there is a little bit of my dad in them.

*****

Best show last week – Went and saw a movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world –  Something we haven’t done for a long while. We saw the Kingsmen. Wow. I mean, wow. Imagine if Quentin Jerome Tarantino made a Bond movie. Violent. Funny. Massively engaging.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Shadow’s Edge. Brent Weeks. About half way through. The stakes are rising, but as a writer, the interesting thing is that he’s now spending about 1/2-1/3 of the book on other POV characters. Not a bad move, but interesting. I mean, why get tied down to just one?

Pages written on new book  Worked on my main character. Hence the blog. From character flows plot, right?

Social media update – Still blogging on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  I have to blog about something terrifying today.

Health  Functionally deaf at the moment due to another ear infection. F*ing hell.

Best thing last week  Date night and movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world.

Worst thing  My laptop being fixed. Damn you Word. Why won’t you work properly?

Links to other writers and bloggers to check out….

marieMarie Lavander – A very well done site, and only 1 of 3 she has running! http://marielavenderbooks.blogspot.ca

 

jodiJodie Llewellynwho really doesn’t need my help with promotion as she has an amazing 75,000 page views, 8,000 comments, and 6,000 followers!!!!! Wow!!! http://www.wordsreadandwritten.com.

 

 

Does every story need love?

Karalee’s Post #104

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, love is a topic that many people are either hiding under the covers to avoid talking about it, or doing other stuff under there that gives love the freedom of expression.

It’s got me asking whether fiction stories need love?

 

My initial response is “Of course not. They don’t all need love.”

On the other hand, when I think about it, I can’t remember a story I’ve read that didn’t have some element of love in it. Very few had scenes with hot-and-steamy go-for-it-sex described in detail. And truth told, seldom is it necessary to tell all.

Love though, doesn’t have to mean romance.

Love can be between a child and her mother. Between siblings, or friends, or cousins, or any other family members. What about your pets? Dogs, cats, horses, etc? Remember Old Yeller? or Black Beauty?

So what is necessary for love? How does it get into every story?

Only two things are needed. 

  1. Characters
  2. Relationships

Simple, right?

Put two people together and there will be some kind of relationship. Good chance it won’t be a loving one, but every character has a history. Since attachment is a basic human need, a necessity for survival in our infancy, somewhere along the line your character will have experienced love with someone, and if not a human then with a pet that had provided nurturing along life’s journey.

Your character’s back-story is what has made him (or her) who he/she is. Love will always be in there somewhere, and how your character acts or reacts will reflect that relationship in some form.

What do you think? Does every fiction story have some thread of love included?

I read Jami Gold’s blog. I loved her post this week and you might want to check it out too. It’s about the romance genre in general and titled, Is “Love Conquers All” Realistic?

Did you know that after this year, the next time we can celebrate Valentine’s Day on a Saturday is in 2026? That must be the reason my husband can’t book a restaurant table that he wants in Vancouver this weekend! And it’s not only because he left it until 3 days beforehand…

*******************************

Writing Progress: Good progress reviewing my very rough first draft.

Writing Distractions:  

  1. I’m almost finished setting up my new office space. It’s got a great ambiance so progress is a must.
  2. Went wedding dress shopping last week with my daughter. Great fun!
  3. Organizing photos for said wedding. Memory lane is a huge distraction, but tons of fun!
  4. Feeling guilty about avoiding getting my tax stuff done….

Treats eaten: homemade chocolate pudding x 2 (small and delicious!) but only after a large salad. It all helps!

Movies/TV watched: getting into the series Selfridges. I’d like to watch what Joe is into as well, Better Call Saul.

Books reading: Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

Perspective Photos taken this week:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

Character, character, character

frankenstein

Silk’s Post #110 — In real estate, famously, the three most important things are location, location, location. In writing, it’s character, character, character. At least, according to me.

Let me convince you.

But first: a spoiler alert.

I’m about to riff off Joe’s last post, “Writing rules?”, in which he discusses how successfully a great book (and now movie) – Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn – can break a bunch of them and make you forget there were supposed to be rules at all. I will be submitting Gone Girl as Exhibit A in my character, character, character argument. And I may give away a few of Flynn’s dirty little secrets.

gone-girlGone Girl is a book-length collision of characters. A suspenseful, horrifying, grotesque dance of truth and lies, love and hate, clarity and delusion, dominance and submission. It brings out the prurient interest of the reader at a deep and unwholesome level, like a kind of intellectual porn. It is spectacular.

The pas de deux at the heart of the book is a wild tango: the externally ordinary but internally twisted marriage between Nick and Amy, two of the most compelling characters in modern American literature.

As Joe mentioned (and this is not giving much away to the insightful reader, who will recognize it very quickly), both Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators of their own stories. Both are point-of-view characters. Both play the dual roles protagonist and antagonist. Both are heroes. Both are anti-heroes. Both are villains. In fact, it’s a crowded marquis when you add up all the credits for these two characters alone.

Gone Girl is, in short, the perfect case study of how all stories are started by characters, are driven forward by characters, and are brought to a resolution by characters. Pretty strong blanket statement, eh? Any arguments against? I’m sure there are.

What about all those other story elements? Concept, for example. Doesn’t a story really begin there, ignited by the classic “disturbance to normal life”? Well, yes. But it’s the characters’ response to that disturbance that begins the story itself. Disturb away to your heart’s content, but if nobody reacts there is no story.

In storytelling, the old conundrum of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it is finally resolved. Nope. No sound. At least not one that can be written about.

And, by the way, writers come up with “concepts”. It’s part of the creative process. Readers, however, don’t read “concepts”. They read stories.

Okay, but how about theme? Isn’t that really the core of many stories? In a theme-driven story, the characters are essentially actors employed to deliver the key message. Their actions and feelings and fates illustrate ideas or forces that are deeper, bigger, more universal than the consequences of their own small lives. I mean, think saga here. Think good vs. evil.

But hold on. Isn’t the real appeal of this type of book the human drama of characters caught up in a thematic story world full of moral dilemmas and conflicts between things like sacrifice vs. comfort, duty vs. love, society vs. the individual? What meaning or resonance would any literary theme have without the personal, human dimension created by characters of free will?

And let’s also clear up that old “law” that conveniently explains the division that’s supposed to exist between “character-driven” novels (often described as literary fiction) and “plot-driven” novels (presumed to be commercial fiction). Apparently, in these “character driven” stories, nothing actually happens. Characters just lie around, inert, thinking thoughts. In contrast, “plot driven” story characters are swept along in a river of action, constantly busy doing whatever their author wants them to, like tin soldiers moved around a pretend battleground by an eight-year-old general.

Maybe once upon a time, this seemed like a good way to categorize books. Someone must have thought it made sense, because we’ve all heard this “character driven” vs. “plot driven” mantra for years (to me it always sounded like code for hardcover vs. pulp). But I’m not buying it anymore.

I’m prepared to go out on a limb and declare that a story, at its heart, is always about people doing stuff, simple as that. Character + action. And in the old chicken-and-egg riddle, I further declare that the character chicken came before the action egg. Hell, I like to live dangerously.

Think about it. Whether it’s literary fiction, paranormal, action story, romance, sci fi, horror, historical, humour, mystery, suspense, thriller, YA, steampunk, or urban post-apocalyptic teen vampire fantasy, every story must be driven forward by the actions of characters. And those actions are driven by the (simple or complex) feelings, needs, motivations and beliefs of those characters – which is what makes the actions interesting and compelling. Character, character, character! I can’t say it enough.

I think we “emerging writers” get tripped up by this very simple principle sometimes. We take it to heart that character is important, so we often start by engineering a protagonist by the Frankenstein method. We stitch together a bunch of humanoid ingredients – gender, age, looks, strengths, weaknesses, clothes, hobbies, likes, dislikes, hair and eye colour, personality – tack on a backstory, and … voila! Our creature is ready to drop into a plot!

Not so fast. Here are just are two of the potential problems still lurking.

The first problem is that we have created, essentially, a mannequin. It still needs to be brought to life (remember the lightning storm in Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein?). Our mannequin protagonist isn’t a character until he actually starts doing (and feeling) something. Instead, we often spend a lot of pages introducing our character to readers passively, through description and backstory.

We want them to understand who this character is, deep down inside. What makes him tick. We want them to love our proud creation. Or at least to relate to him. We often don’t even realize we’re doing this – standing next to our protagonist like a proud parent telling the reader all about him instead of letting him show them his stuff. But for me, as a reader, meeting a new protagonist in the early pages of a book often feels like an enforced tour of Grandma’s baby picture album. I suspect these are the pages most agents and editors chop without mercy.

(Have you had the experience, as I have, of speed dating an agent at a writers’ conference and being told to start your story on page 6 or 10? Why? Because they know what readers actually want. They want to get to know the character through his actions.)

The second problem (just skip this paragraph if you’ve never, ever done this) is that we tend to mould our protagonist in our own image. Writers are always sneakily writing about themselves – or the selves they’d really like to be (or perhaps are afraid they might become). How can I say this, you might protest, when your protagonist is totally different from you? Different age, looks, circumstances, maybe even gender! Okay, then, why do so many protagonists come off as essentially good guys with some obvious (but mostly endearing) “faults” pasted on, often faults that don’t go deeper than quirks? My suspicion is it’s because we identify so strongly with them. They’re our stand-ins. Their popularity is our popularity. We don’t want them to piss anyone off, and that can lead to a bland protagonist.

So now, let’s go back to Gone Girl. Want to know how to create unforgettable characters? Read this book. It’s an extreme example because Gillian Flynn gets us addicted to her unreliable (and ultimately unlikeable) characters to the extent that we have to find out what they’ll do next, even though it makes us uncomfortable. Despite the fact that they’re really quite fucked up, we want to understand them. And even while they make us cringe, we don’t hate them.

And here’s the brilliance of this psychological thriller: we keep seeing flashes of our secret selves in them, hating to admit it. They become a kind of Rorschach test for the reader. We don’t just want to find out what happens to them in the end. We need to know.

The punchline of my thesis: the only ones who can entice, motivate, even force readers to turn the page in your book are your characters. They are your stars, sometimes temperamental and difficult to direct. But if you can dig down and get a powerful performance out of them, they’ll put you on the bestseller lists.

A Grimm tale

6a00e5509ea6a188340168ebf69049970c-320wi

Helga’s Post # 30 — Something odd happened as I read through my manuscript. No, that’s not quite truthful. I  knew it was always there, whenever I sat down to write. In a subliminal sort of way. But now, as I start editing the first draft in anticipation of our group’s retreat, I let it bubble to the surface, unbridled.

It’s about the persona of my protagonist. Not only my protagonist. Any fiction writer’s protagonist. I asked myself whether we are creating characters in our own image. Are we hiding our autobiographies inside our manuscripts?

You bet we do.

I didn’t realize that when I started writing my story, I was unsure what kind of person I wanted to create. I guess I wanted her to be many things, and I endowed her with different traits, depending on whose ‘How-To’ book I was reading at the time. Donald Maass put it aptly in ‘The Fire in Fiction’:

‘Heroes who are nothing but good, noble, unswerving, honest, courageous, and kind to their mothers will make your readers want to gag.’

Duly noted. So I aimed for my protagonist to be heroic, but with flaws. Yet flaws not so serious as to render her a wuss or be fatal.  She should be able to feel deep emotions, without being melodramatic. She should be capable, but not boisterous. She should be unique, without flaunting it.

She should be… she should be… oh bloody hell.

Fine lines, all of them. I made changes to my protagonist time and again, with the result that she ended up being three or more people all in one. She was a total scatterbrain, without focus or conviction. I ended up with a flimsy character. The kind that may prompt the dreaded question, “Why should I care about this person?”

I sort of knew it when I started writing the first draft, but wasn’t ready to confront it.

Common wisdom dictates to ‘just get the story down’ and don’t spend time on details in the first draft. Makes tons of sense, but I believe it cannot extend to character development. This is where most of the groundwork has to be done, before writing the first sentence of Chapter One. The story begins and ends with the characters, and the plot is the excuse to write about them.

So what did I do before I realized the errors of my ways?

I tried to hide her imperfections with clever plot twists. And with lots of secondary characters, to shift the focus away from her. And with planting enough little traps so the reader may not notice just what a nincompoop my protagonist really was.

It backfired of course. I had to reinvent her. Not just with little things like voice, or colour of her eyeshadow, or her preference for men with six-packs rather than six (high) figure bank accounts. This girl had to acquire a moral compass and a steely determination among other things. Her ‘angry outbursts’, her ‘tear-streaked cheeks’, all met their just destiny: the  delete button.

Triage was in order.

I had to get into my character’s head. And she into mine. Pleased to meet you. The real YOU that is. It’s taken a while.

“What made you decide to show the reader that deep down I am really insecure?” She asked me.

Me: “I wanted to make you honest. Before I changed you, I couldn’t tell what made you tick. Not even I, your creator, knew who you were. So now, I can see through you. I can read you like a book, pardon for putting it this way. I can tell how insecure you are by the way you try to hide it. By being cocksure. In your face. Especially to your boss.”

“Interesting. What am I so insecure about?”

Me: “Well, you know, you always feel inadequate when you meet people with status. Especially people who had a higher education. You always want to run with the fast crowd, but you were scared shitless they would figure out you’re an imposter.”

“You mean I wanted to break out of my social class, my background?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s it. You  put your finger on it.”

“Wow. That sounds so Freudian. And it sounds like an image of yourself.”

Me (long pause, clearing throat): “Well, you know, the more I wrote about you, the better I understood you. On one level I really wanted you to break out of your mold, and you did in a way, with your ceaseless ambition. Yet, how shall I put it, you never quite fit in.”

“I know. Because I feel your tether on every page. As soon as I think I’ve been accepted as one of the ‘beautiful’ people, meaning the smart and the powerful, you pull me right back again on that leash of yours. But the really cruel thing you did to me is something different.”

Me: “I’m not cruel! Not deliberately anyway.”

“Well, you are. Because by now you’ve moved me so far beyond my poor background, that they’ve closed ranks back there. They don’t want me any more. Calling me a social climber, a traitor to my kin. You’ve placed me squarely in no-man’s land. I’m an outsider. I don’t belong.”

Me: “There’s no denying that. But understand, I’m not writing Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You are never going to ride into the sunset on a white stallion with your handsome prince.”

“Can I at least have sex? It doesn’t have to be on a stallion.”

Me: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You already had some in the past, and what good did that do you?”

“But that was back story. Your readers hate that. Let’s do it in real time. Please?”

Me: “Let me think about it. I still have to write The End anyway. Just don’t you ask me what’ll happen to you, okay? Keep in mind though the world is a cruel place. It’s a jungle out there.”

“You’re gonna kill me. Right?”

Me: “Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not healthy to harbor such morose thoughts. Think positive. Whatever happens, I will be fair. And I will try my best to avoid a lot of blood and gore. There has to be some, you understand, because we want to sell the book…”

“Please, don’t. Otherwise…”

Me: “You’re threatening me? Listen, sweetheart, all I need to do is stretch my pinkie and push that button in the upper right hand corner of my keyboard. The button that all you characters hate with a vengeance.”

(Laughter): “You won’t. Because you want to sell your damn book, don’t you?”

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Image: Book Cover for ‘Grimm Fairy Tales Volume 12’
(Joe Brusha, Ralph Tedesco)