Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”



Interview with the protagonist – take #2


Substitute for Silk’s Post #61 — Follow-up interview conducted in National Public Radio studios, KPLU Seattle-Tacoma.

Interviewer:  Good morning on this partly-sunny Thanksgiving week Monday. Welcome once again to Book Talk: New Voices, a weekly exploration of emerging writers. And speaking of ‘sunny’, regular Book Talk listeners may remember my unusual interview last April with Sunny Laine, who is not an author at all, but a new protagonist in an upcoming mystery-suspense story by emerging writer Silk Questo. The story is set right here in Seattle, and today Sunny is back to update us on her, uh, development … Hello again Sunny.

Sunny:  Hi. Thanks for having me, but … look, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here, but could I just make one comment?

Interviewer:  Well, certainly. That’s why you’re here.

Sunny:  Development? That’s what you said – my development. That’s a little impersonal sounding, you know? I mean, I’m not a new mall. I’m a human being. Okay, I know I’m fictional, but I do have feelings, right? Frankly, I’m just a little sensitive on this topic.

Interviewer:  I see. Well, uh, you know I haven’t had the chance to interview many, uh, people like yourself – fictional characters, that is – so I’m curious about your unique perspective. Can you tell me a little more about this sensitivity?

Sunny:  To be honest, I’ve had a difficult time finding myself and I’m even beginning to wonder whether my story is going anywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for Silk, and it’s making me stir crazy. No one likes to be neglected, you know? It’s nerve-wracking.

Interviewer:  Sounds like you’re frustrated.

Sunny:  Frustrated, yes. And a little scared.

Interviewer:  Scared?

Sunny:  Yeah! Wouldn’t you be? My life hangs in the balance here. I mean, will I die on the page before I even get a chance to live?

Interviewer:  Well, you have the microphone here, Sunny. What would you like to say to Silk about your feelings?

Sunny:  How about, “Get the lead out girlfriend!” I mean, I don’t want her to think I’m … difficult. It’s just that, as I said last time, it’s not easy being a protagonist in an unfinished book. Especially one that’s creeping along at the pace of a three-toed sloth. I keep telling her it only takes nine months to gestate a real, living baby – shouldn’t she be able to pop out one little book in a year?

Interviewer:  And what is the ETA for this manuscript you’re starring in?

Sunny:  (Laughs) Silk says end of the year.

Interviewer:  And what do you say?

Sunny:  I say, what year would that be?

Interviewer:  My goodness. Well, let’s move on to other subjects. How have you changed since we last chatted?

Sunny:  Well, that’s the good news. I got a big promotion to ‘first person’ status, so now I’m telling my own story in my own voice. I’m really excited about it.

Interviewer:  Wonderful! So I’m guessing you have a bit more influence on the story now?

Sunny:  You bet. The first thing I did was stop going to my law classes. I’m really not big on sitting on my backside in a lecture hall. Boring, boring, boring.

Interviewer:  But how will you get your law degree, then? I thought that was so important to you! Weren’t you on a mission to get justice for – who was it? – someone in your family.

Sunny:  My brother Wolf. But don’t worry about my academic career. I can do this. Believe me. But I’ll do it my way.

Interviewer:  You sound very determined. I just hope you know what you’re doing.

Sunny:  Me too.

Interviewer:  Now, on another front, how are your relationships with your fellow characters going? Any love interests we can look forward to?

Sunny:  There will be if I have anything to say about it. But the ‘person of interest’ I have in mind will be a real challenge. One of those hard-to-get types. Mystery man, right? Deep. With a bit of a dark side. Those bad boys always turn me on. But he’s really good-hearted inside. Or I hope so …

Interviewer:  Sounds delicious. And dare I ask about the villain? I believe we established that this is a murder mystery when we last spoke, and I assume you’ve been reassured by Silk that you’re not the victim. Do you know who your evil opponent is?

Sunny:  Sore, sore subject. The fact is I still don’t know if I’m a victim or not, and that’s very unnerving, to say the least. I mean, if I get killed, I can’t really be the protagonist, right?  This living in doubt is enough to kill me all by itself. The problem is, in a murder mystery you really can’t assume anything. Otherwise, where’s the suspense?

Interviewer:  Yes, I take your point. And the villain? Have you met him or her yet?

Sunny:  No idea whatsoever. You don’t think Silk’s going to tell me ahead of time, do you? It would ruin the surprise. She doesn’t give a sh— … a hoot whether I can sleep at night or not. In fact, I think she spends most of her time thinking up ways to make me suffer. She won’t be happy until I’m totally paranoid.

Interviewer:  That sounds … distinctly uncomfortable.

Sunny:  Now you’re getting the picture. You think it’s easy to star in this type of story? It’s torture, from start to finish! That’s the point, see? Now maybe you understand why I’m trying so hard to kick Silk into gear so we can get this thing done. I’m sick of living in fear. I’d like to know, once and for all, whether I live or die.

Interviewer:  I had no idea what a tough job you protagonists have in the mystery suspense genre. I must admire your grit. You’ve certainly given me a new appreciation of the drama that goes on behind the scenes.

Sunny:  Yeah. Welcome to my hell.

Interviewer:  Well, we’ll all be on the edges of our seats until your story is finally out, Sunny, and I wish you the very best of luck with all your challenges. Thanks for joining us this morning, but that’s all the time we have today. This is NPR’s Book Talk: New Voices, reminding you to read someone new this week!

Sunny:  Can I say one last thing?

Interviewer:  Yes, quickly please.

Sunny:  Silk, if you’re going to kill me off, at least let me have a hot affair with you-know-who first, okay? 

My villainous day


Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #32 — I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him not.

Really. I love him not. Or maybe her. I’m not ready to tell you that yet.

I’m talking about my antagonist. My villain. My thing that goes bump in the night.

I spent the entire day today with my antagonist. Cooped up with a twisted character, an evil presence. I’m happy to report that I don’t like my villain very much, and I hope you won’t either.

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
— William Shakespeare

I’m lying, of course. (I learned that from my antagonist.)

I actually love my bad guy. Or gal. Why? Deeply flawed characters have to be very complex, or at least that’s how I like them best. They’re so fascinating. Delving into the psyche of a villain is like descending into a scary, but fantastic, hypnotic and awesome cave. We keep going down because we can. We just hope we can get back up again.

History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
— Ian Fleming

Pure evil isn’t really all that interesting. It’s just the reverse of pure good, which is also not very entertaining, as admirable as it may be. It’s the messiness, the illogic, the unique way in which the antagonist is broken, distorted, unpredictable that makes him or her so fascinating.

Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad.
— W. Somerset Maugham

After all, there are limited ways a character can be “good.” Goodness can be quirkily flawed, but it has to remain within rather narrow moral, emotional and behavioural parameters. I think that’s what makes it challenging to come up with truly interesting, memorable and relatable protagonists, as Helga discussed in her last post, “A Grimm Tale”. After all, we do have to like the protagonist. Otherwise we won’t care what happens to him or her.

But there seem to be no limits to the devious ways a character can be “bad.” First of all we don’t have to like them. That certainly opens the floodgates! In fact, we have to have negative feelings about them. Disgust. Hate. Fear. Anger. All powerful stuff. This gives the writer virtual carte blanche on creativity.

I love to make even villains people you can relate to. When you find out who did it, I think you almost like the person, which is not easy to do.
— Harlen Coben

The most horrific monster is both a victimizer and a victim. We do have to relate to the bad guy, too. That’s where one of the most important feelings of all – pity – comes in to play. When a writer can reveal the painful story of how a villain became so warped, what awful background made the apple rotten, we feel the tragedy more deeply. We see the buried, tortured spark of humanity, the good character that the antagonist might have become if only … if only … and we despair.

Nothing is more dramatic, more affecting, than the fall from grace. It’s so central to virtually every creation legend.

So, no wonder we love to hate our monsters.

In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.
— Alfred Hitchcock

But back to my monster. He, or she, has been mocking me all day. Just when I thought I knew why my villain acted in a certain way, every time I tried to connect the story background to the story foreground, some piece would slip out of place. The bottom line is that I “get” my antagonist. I know his or her damaged psyche, motivation, frightening capabilities. But I haven’t yet totally integrated these into the plot.

Red Riding Hood has met the wolf. I just haven’t quite figured out what the wolf’s plan is.

And in the end, maybe his, or her, plan is just to act like a wolf. We think everything has to make sense. (Or I tend to, at least.) But with an antagonist, we can sometimes break that rule.

As for an authentic villain, the real thing, the absolute, the artist, one rarely meets him even once in a lifetime. The ordinary bad hat is always in part a decent fellow.
— Colette

Remember the famous story of the scorpion who hitches a ride across the river on the alligator’s back? Halfway across, the scorpion stings the alligator and they both drown, but not before the alligator, completely befuddled, asks the scorpion: why, why why? The scorpion says: Because I’m a scorpion. It’s just in my nature.

That’s what I’ve been battling my antagonist about all day today. I keep wanting to make my villain conform to logic. Make sense. He, or she, keeps telling me: I’m crazy, you dumb b*tch of a writer! I don’t have to conform to your girl scout, two-plus-two-equals-four, sappy f*cking logic! You’ve never been down here in hell with me, so stop trying to tell me what to do!

And it’s true.

He, or she, wins.

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
— Alfred Hitchcock

Sand in my shoe

Helga’s Post #4  If you have followed this blog for the last couple of weeks, you know things are a bit rocky on the writing front. Progress to date has been at snail’s pace (and that’s putting it mildly). Perhaps not at the same level; we heard from Karalee she’s galloping ahead of the pack with her characters (way to go baby!) Sure, our road to Nirvana (another word for getting published), is paved with good intentions, but no matter how we twist and turn, priorities cannot be ignored. Consider the case of Joe: he is facing a brutally short deadline to submit a manuscript that still needs editing. He has to put the 5Writers project on the back burner so that Echo of The Shroudmaiden will finally get the respect she so justly deserves. That’s a no-brainer.

But what about the rest of us? By now we should have somewhere between (gulp) 75 to 100 pages written (see Silk’s haunting Arithmetic post) in order to have a finished manuscript in four months. What is wrong with us! (speaking for myself, getting sidetracked to learn my new writing software StoryMill, for example. Thanks again Paula, for taking time to show me the ropes).

I know we all can see the larger picture. We know what our novels are about and have the plot figured out. More or less anyways. I suspect the devil is in the details.

‘It is not the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.’ (Thank you, Robert W. Service for this morsel of wisdom)

Our trip to the Oregon sand dunes – beautiful, but lots of sand in the shoes

For me, for this project, I know the story I want to tell. The story I am itching to tell. Just like telling bedtime stories to my kids long ago (though I hasten to add that my novel would not fit the mold of a bedtime story). It’s the small details that keep me back: will my readers relate to my characters; do my settings sound realistic and have enough color; does my dialogue ring true?

Gotta shake out that grain of sand in my shoe. Gotta keep looking at the mountain.

My main character, my protagonist, as I alluded in my last post, is unusual. She is smart. She is funny. People like her. I hope my readers will root for her as she tackles some formidable obstacles. Nothing unusual yet. But here’s the rub: When she deals with people who have double-crossed her she is unforgiving. Extremely so. And creative in the way she tilts the scale. Protagonist, you’ll wonder? You wished. Now she’s no Annie Wilkes from Misery, but the name does come to mind. (Don’t tempt me, Annie!)

Watch out Sheldon!

And the villain? He’s done my heroine wrong, no doubt about it. But now the tables may have turned. He’s become the victim. Or has he? The lines become blurred. Villain in one chapter, victim in the next. My heroine seems to go through a metamorphosis. The hunted becomes the huntress. Readers start to identify with and root for my villain. But, as so many inside book flaps promise, or warn, nothing is what it seems.

You may wonder if I’m writing a horror story. I’m not. Not in the strictest sense. My subject deals with a real-life, contemporary phenomenon that I am fictionalizing with invented characters. In fact it defies any horror story.

All to say, when agents or publishers at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference just two weeks away, will ask the inevitable, “can you tell me something about your protagonist, and also about your antagonist?” I may look them in the eye with a villainous glint, and say, “It’s not that simple.”

Because, truth be told, I don’t know myself. Not yet. Not entirely. Because no matter how diligently I have worked on my outline, in the end my characters will do what they want, without my bidding. And that’s something I look forward to: meeting the angels and demons (love your title, Dan Brown), that will populate my novel.

Keeping my eyes peeled on that mountain.
Chilcotin, Northern B.C.